NOCTURNAL. "You were fond of me once... You always loved violence. You haven't changed, and you never will." Kurt (Christopher Lee) is dead and buried, but Navenka (Daliah Lavi) can't get his words or his body out of her mind. Mario Bava's 1963 gothic horror film, The Whip and the Flesh, revels in the poetry of this obsession. Kurt brandishes a riding crop, and savagely whips Navenka. His face appears in close-up, fixed in a haughty sneer. She lies prone, in reverse shot, writhing under the blows. Her nightgown is ripped to shreds, and lines of blood appear across her back. At first, all she can do is whimper and cry. But soon, her groans of pain turn into moans of sexual excitement. Her hatred of him is only a vehicle for her love. Kurt throws the whip aside; his expression changes. Now he is leaning over Navenka; he is about to kiss her. In extreme close-up, we see his face approaching. His mouth, avidly gaping wide, nearly fills the screen. This shot alone is far more violent and obscene than any whipping could be. Will Navenka be swallowed whole and utterly consumed? At the very last moment, the screen blacks out... These unearthly encounters can only take place at night. Night is the time when shapes shift, when forms and boundaries dissolve. There's no clear division between fact and hallucination, between life and death, between dread and desire. Navenka has killed Kurt, but still she finds him everywhere. He appears in the window, in the mirror, and silhouetted against the curtains. His sarcastic laughter echoes through the burial vault. He leaves behind filthy, mud-stained footprints to mark his passage. The doorknob creaks and turns, as he strives to enter. Such ghostly intimations drive nearly every scene. The action unfolds at a slow, hypnotic pace. Or rather, it doesn't unfold at all. In scene after scene, almost nothing happens. It's all disquietude and vague premonitions. Does that knocking sound herald Kurt's ghost? It turns out to be just a branch, banging against a window in the storm. It's hard to make anything out, anyway, in this blue-black murk, amidst all these shadows. The camera pans haltingly around a dark room, or tracks slowly down an empty corridor. It pauses, for a long time, on Navenka's face. But she is all in shadow, except for a band of light that crosses over her eyes. Suddenly she hears a sound; startled, she leans forward. Now her whole face is bathed in the light. The camera zooms in, capturing her features still more closely. She cries out and withdraws into the darkness. For its part, the camera pulls back too. Such scenes leave us in suspension. We feel the burden of the seconds ticking by. There's nothing we can do, except wait. The film moves at a pace that is not our own. It's a time devoid of action and events, a time of empty anticipation. Bava's camera moves to the rhythm of this alien time, as it tracks the minutest ebbs and flows of passion. It abandons the actors, and executes an elegant arabesque all around the room. Or it disrupts the balance of shot and reverse shot with a series of fast, irregular zooms. Or it holds on to a close-up for an inordinately long time. The film's most beautiful sequences have almost no dialogue, feature no dramatic twists, and exhibit no acting to speak of. They are purely atmospheric effects, conjured out of fluid camera movements, abrupt cuts, and subtle variations of light. But they are all the more intense for being so nearly impalpable. They tremble at the very limits of perception. They intimate passions too subtle to be detected, or too violent to suffer the light of day. They show us what can never be seen or touched or recounted directly. How else approach someone who is literally beside herself? Navenka doesn't possess a stable, coherent identity, for she herself is the one possessed. She feels Kurt's deathly otherness in her very bones. He is closer to her than she is to herself. His mere presence is a violence, a sundering. How could she not both love him and hate him, in equal measure, all at once? In the last scene of the film, she embraces Kurt passionately, murmuring to him of her endless love. At the same time she raises a dagger, poised to stab him in the back. It is only now, for the first time in the whole film, that we see things from an 'objective' point of view. Kurt, we discover, is not really there; Navenka is embracing empty air. It's the perfect emblem of her dilemma, stranded as she is between hatred and desire, between self and other, between pleasure and pain. Navenka thrusts with the dagger, aiming to kill Kurt again, and only succeeds in piercing her own breast.
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