In the opening scenes of ‘Knife+Heart’, director Yann Gonzalez (‘You and the Night’, ‘Islands’) cuts between an editor splicing 16mm footage, a porno movie shot somewhere in the countryside, and scenes of its young star heading out to a nightclub and meeting a man in a leather mask. Surprise! The masked man is a serial killer, just like your typical slasher flick. Double surprise! The killer's signature murder weapon turns out to be a hefty black dildo armed with a retractable switchblade. At which point you begin to realise that this may not be your typical slasher flick after all...
The young victim was the latest muse of Anne (Vanessa Paradis, ‘Yoga Hosers’), a 40-ish gay porn producer who has built up a thick filmography of semi-autobiographical skin flicks with subtly suggestive titles like ‘Anal Fury’. With the help of her best friend Archibald (Nicolas Maury), her editor and former lover Lois (Kate Moran) and a fluffer nicknamed Golden Mouth (Pierre Pilol), Anne is as passionate about her third-rate filmmaking as Jean-Luc Godard for the French New Wave, even if her movies only play at a grubby Parisian cinema that also doubles as a gay pick-up spot.
A mean-spirited jerk, Anne breaks the mould of the wide-eyed young naif who’s usually the heroine in a giallo film. Paradis plays this objectively terrible person with a great deal of sympathy, as an alcoholic tortured by unrequited love and her own jealousy. She’s really the only fleshed-out character in ‘Knife+Heart’, her subconscious played out in narrative of the adult films whose integrity she so passionately defends.
‘Knife+Heart’, like most modern giallos, takes a lot of pleasure in replicating 1970s-style visuals with grainy celluloid, saturated lighting and bright primary colours. Just like the films of Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and most other additions to the giallo genre, it also prioritises style over pacing and tension (it’s messy and sometimes inert in its second half). The film’s initially straightforward plot manages to twist itself in ways that don’t make a whole lot of sense and it’s completely unsatisfying as a whodunit, necessitating voiceover in the last five minutes of the movie explaining what the fuck we just watched.
Anne’s latest and most ambitious work is compromised when cast members keep dying left and right, with each killing beautifully (shot on 35mm by Simon Beaufils) - and sometimes comically - staged in a different setting: a forest during a wind storm, a late night parking lot, the movie set itself. There are shades of E. Elias Merhige’s film-behind-a-film ‘Shadow of the Vampire’ as Anne begins to incorporate the real-life murders of Guy (Jonathan Genet) and Thierry (Félix Maritaud) into her new movie, ‘Homocidal’, starring Archibald in drag solving crimes and getting foot jobs from lusty, moustachioed cops. But while the film’s violence is graphic, Gonzalez leaves much of the sexual content to the imagination (aside from a fleeting shot of an un-simulated blowjob).
The film’s initially straightforward plot manages to twist itself in ways that don’t make a whole lot of sense and it’s completely unsatisfying as a whodunit, necessitating voiceover in the last five minutes of the movie explaining what the fuck we just watched.
Aside from it’s Italian influences, ‘Knife+Heart’ also tips its hat to sexually charged thrillers such as ‘Cruising’, ‘Body Double’, and ‘Peeping Tom’. However, it’s still a very French film, and possibly it’s Frenchiest quality comes from the lush, disco-influenced original score (apparently inspired by the soundtracks to 'Don’t Torture a Duckling' and 'Twitch of the Death Nerve') by the electronic group M83 (led by Gonzalez’s brother, Anthony), who previously composed the scores for ‘Oblivion’ and ‘You and the Night’. The film also has the amusing habit of giving classical aesthetics a queer makeover, like a picnic scene posing Anne’s family of oddballs in a way that is reminiscent of a Renaissance painting.
Gonzalez, like Friedkin with ‘Cruising’, seems more interested in shining a light on pathology and trauma than solving a traditional mystery. As a visual stylist, he also wants us to admire the artful staging of the violence and sex rather than be aroused or frightened by it. These distinctions make this highly unusual slasher something to be appreciated rather than simply jangle nerves. Still, maybe don’t appreciate it with your elderly parents... unless they are really into the oeuvres of Dario Argento and Brian De Palma.