Written by: Yann Gonzalez, Cristiano Mangione
Directed by: Yann Gonzalez
Starring: Vanessa Paradis, Nicolas Maury, and Kate Moran
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“The more you kill me, the more I love you"
Knife + Heart is the latest in a long line of genre homages and pastiche, one that especially invites comparison to a bygone era of 70s psycho-sleaze. Even more specifically, Yann Gonzalez’s throwback feels like the a shared nightmare that David Argento, Brian De Palma, and Lucio Fulci might have had after watching a triple feature of Inserts, Cruising, and Stage Fright. Its fluorescent hues and stylized violence almost begs you to simply consider it as a meticulously crafted object d’art, to be viewed almost exclusively through the lens of the works to which it’s playing tribute. Fortunately, however, Knife + Heart does aspire beyond mere mimicry and adulation of its cinematic forebearers in its sensitive depiction of a marginalized community’s exploitation and self-loathing. Gonzalez and co-writer Cristiano Mangione didn’t just hatch a “queer slasher” for the sake of gimmickry or provocation but rather as a launching point for a genuine exploration of this community’s shared pain.
It’d be easy to assume otherwise from the opening scene, however, a grisly encounter between a masked man and an unsuspecting young man looking for sex. Their tryst ends with the former brandishing a knife-edged dildo that he uses to violently penetrate the latter, leaving him a blood-stained carcass sprawled across the bed. It’s a staple of slasher filmmaking—the opening kill that sets the tone for what’s to follow, and this one is no different. Gonzalez immediately drops the audience into this warped entanglement of sex and violence, with the victim’s sexuality seemingly entangled with his grisly fate. However, it must be said that Gonzalez’s direction is somewhat restrained here: much of the actual violence (particularly the penetration) is left off-screen for viewers to imagine (or not!) to their heart’s content.
This seems most pertinent because it’s a signal that Knife + Heart isn’t going to just be gratuitous schlock. Instead, the script seeks to account for the victim, who we learn was a member of a gay porn production outfit headed by director Anne (Vanessa Paradis). When we meet Anne, she’s making a desperate call to Lois (Kate Moran), her estranged lover who’s grown tired of Anne’s self-destructive drinking habits. Lois insists she only wants to see Anne at work, where she serves as editor. Between this and the revelation that one of her stars has been savagely murdered, Anne’s life spirals into a desperate quest to both reconcile her relationship and discover the identity of the masked man that continues to stalk and kill her cast and crew.
When you first hear the logline “masked man kills gay porn actors with a dildo knife,” it’s natural to pause and perhaps even wince at the implication. Something like this could go truly south in the wrong hands, becoming an ugly exercise in tasteless violence that mostly exists to watch LGBTQ folks die horribly. Gonzalez has a lighter touch though, or at least as light as it can be with this material. He only indulges the outlandishness of the killer’s M.O. once more early in the film, when an act of simulated oral sex ends with a knife plunging straight through the victim’s head.
These outbursts aside, however, Gonzalez seeks to honor the giallo genre’s emphasis on storytelling, as Anne’s investigation slowly becomes the film’s focal point. As more of her cast members are slaughtered, Anne becomes haunted by mysterious dreams, which begin to feel more like transmissions pointing her in the direction of a rural town that may hold the killer’s secrets. Her quest takes on the tenor of a waking nightmare populated by exotic death birds, bizarre locals, and a haunting, tragic story about a young boy whose father burned him to death after finding him with another boy. Given the grisly nature of the crimes Anne is investigating, it’s perhaps surprising that a twinge of melancholy hovers over the proceedings as well once it becomes clear the masked psychopath harbors his own trauma.
Melancholy—particularly the sense of melancholy that accompanies loss—hangs over much of Knife + Heart. Gonzalez equally invests in Anne’s personal life and the characters surrounding her by sketching a tender, touching portrait of a community that truly only has each other (until they don’t). The film plunges headlong into the nitty-gritty of porn production but refuses to use it as an opportunity for outsiders to rubberneck or gawk at its idiosyncrasies; rather, it’s all treated as a matter of natural course, from the outsized, flamboyant personalities to some of the production’s strange routines. These characters aren’t victims foremost—they’re living, breathing personalities with a shared sense of finding solace where they can, even if it’s part of this bizarre extended family.
That’s what makes Anne so fascinating: even though she’s a lesbian, there’s a sense she doesn’t truly belong here. Instead, she’s exploiting her cast and crew in more ways than one: once it becomes clear that the killer is targeting her production, her art begins to imitate life, as her latest film shamelessly exploits the grisly murders unfolding around her. Even as she’s desperately she trying to uncover the killer’s identity, she can’t help but profit from her community’s pain, a turn of events that gives rise to the most obvious metaphor at play in Knife + Heart, a film that literally features the sort of exploitation it’s out to subvert itself.
As such, Anne emerges as a fascinating, complex protagonist in her own right. Like Anthony Franciosa’s novelist in Tenebrae, she carries a sense of unwitting complicity in the crime she investigates, and Paradis is brilliant in capturing a woman teetering on the brink. Desperation lurks behind her eyes in nearly every scene, communicating Anne’s distinct sense of wanting: to be accepted, to be loved, and, perhaps, to be absolved. Her relationship with Lois becomes the film’s lynchpin of sorts: this is the one thing Anne has that can provide stability, and even it becomes a reflection of her own destructiveness when she finds herself stalking her ex in clubs and scratching lovelorn messages into the film’s dailies. Reuniting with Lois becomes more than just trying to mend a broken relationship—it becomes something like a lifeline, or some sort of penance that will help her make peace with herself. (Spoilers from this point on.)
Peace remains elusive, however, as her efforts to ensnare the killer dovetail tragically with Lois’s own realization about this relationship. Anne is left thoroughly devastated, with her film serving as a document of the dead, a haunting reminder of everything she was powerless to stop. She sits alone in a theater, garnering praise (though doing her best to deflect credit to Lois) as she drifts in and out of a nightmarish remix of her own film. Her guilt and self-loathing makes an unwitting match for the killer, who lurks in the back of the theater, waiting to strike again.
Like Anne, he’s been twisted into destructiveness by his own self-hatred after living an entire life bearing the literal scars of his own lost, tragic love. While I would not presume to know definitively, Gonzalez seems to be highlighting the self-destructiveness of being queer, whether closeted or not. Knife + Heart takes this notion to the extreme, particularly with the vengeful killer, whose impulses to kill the gay men he encounters is something of a primal trigger. Whether he realizes it or not, these men remind him of himself and must be eradicated; likewise, Anne’s own guilt manifests when she casts herself as the killer in her own production, unwittingly revealing to the world her own feelings of guilt and complicity as she wrestles with feeling like an outsider even her own scene. As a result, Gonzalez infuses a typically exploitative sub-genre with a genuine sense of psychology in lieu of lurid psychosexuality.
As such, it’s nice to have a rare throwback that’s not seeking to just mimic surface level-aesthetic. Knife + Heart certainly seeks to draw audiences in with its brazen, faithful reproduction of a familiar style; in doing so, however, it also slyly upends the very expectations it helps to set. So many of these things usually just end with the sense that you’ve seen some interesting karaoke; this one leaves you with the feeling that its filmmakers have something interesting to say by explicitly reshaping its genre aesthetics in their own image. Ultimately, Knife + Heart becomes an act of cinematic fantasy, wherein filmmakers and fictional characters alike seek to reclaim a genre that has sometimes treated the marginalized as unrepentant freaks or psychos; this one, however, seeks to sympathize rather than to completely demonize, making it one of the most audacious, indelible films in recent memory.
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