1 Hr., 40 Mins.
Knife + Heart December 9, 2019
hey say life imitates art. In Knife + Heart (2018), it’s the other way around. Set in France at the end of the 1970s, the movie puts us at the center of a little-explored cinematic milieu: the gay porn industry. The film, though attentive to the scenery and mores of the period, isn’t meant to be ethnographic, though. Before anything else, it’s an erotic thriller — more specifically an homage to the giallo films of the 1970s and '80s. In
the movie, a killer, dressed in black leather, a skin-tight rubber mask, and a curly black wig, is running amok. He’s targeting the young men who star in the “blue movies” produced by Anne (Vanessa Paradis), a lesbian industry vet. His weapon of choice? A black dildo doubling as a switchblade. Anne is upset by this, of course. But she isn’t so bothered that she’ll deny the artistic inspiration that accompanies her worry. As progress is made in the investigation, key moments become the bases of several projects. In one of them, Anne has her stable of actors turn a police interrogation she experiences into a carnal fantasy. In another — imaginatively called “Homicidal” — she refashions the hopefully inevitable capturing of the killer into an adventure in skin-on-skin contact that nearly ends in a knifing.
Anne eventually gets serious. Someone especially close to her will become among the slain; soon, it’s apparent to her that the murderer is picking through these others as a sort of appetizer before finally getting to her. Like any good giallo, what makes Knife + Heart sleazy fun is how well it mixes pleasure and panic before the darkness becomes inescapable. We’re having a ball with the whodunit plot, the neon-soaked photography, the kinky music (provided here by M83), and the everywhere sexiness of it all until we can’t anymore.
It doesn’t all feel like a straightforward homage, though. There are no classic gialli set in this particular seamy environment as far as I know (although I can think of a few genre films with instances of homophobia, by contrast), and no characteristic giallo heroes would take the shape of Anne, who is in her 40s, deeply cynical, prone to alcohol-backed outbursts, and wildly immoral. Usually, protagonists would be rogue cops, Hitchcockian everymen, and/or young women who had yet to be hardened by life. (The hardening, probably, would come with their film's finale.) The movie is a tribute with a modern and original approach; co-writer and director Yann Gonzalez can deliciously recreate a specific look and feeling, but never while watching Knife + Heart did I think of him as something of a dadaist tastemaker, remixing old-hat visual ideas without a second thought. It’s a pastiche that isn’t destructively too hitched to the era from which it takes many of its photographic and editing notes.
But while it’s stylistically solid, Knife + Heart flounders a bit both as a thriller and a meatier psychological exercise. The murder scenes are too spread out, and are so abrupt and abominable that the movie, in addition to not grabbing onto the suspense they evoke the way they should, doesn’t seem all that much bothered when they flare up — sort of like Anne during the movie's first couple of acts. (An exception comes in the form of the introductory stalk-and-slash sequence, which is drawn out to a painfully tense degree.) That the film is set in a dangerous industry whose inhabitants are also vulnerable minorities could have brought to the feature greater poignancy, too. But Gonzalez, who seems to have pointedly set the movie just before the commencement of the AIDs crisis, doesn’t explore this reality much. Much more time is spent trying to dig into the mind of Anne, largely avoiding the areas we're most interested in. A huge chunk of the film is dedicated to her torrid romantic relationship with her main editor, Lois (Kate Moran), which is the definition of off-and-on. It's effectively rendered, but it takes too much precedence.
Analogous to how Gonzalez doesn’t really meaningfully explore the inner lives of the men populating Anne’s features, we also know little about Anne. We're familiar with her alcoholism, her self-destructive behavior, and her self-sufficiency — all characteristics that help genuinely make her a compelling heroine — but not much about how she got into the business, what her and Lois’ relationship has looked like for the last decade, or why, exactly, she leans so heavily into self-destruction. (Still, Paradis is fantastic here — as effortlessly able to generate an ultra-cool aura as let off a smoke of depressiveness you don't want to breathe in.)
Gonzalez has excellently crafted a visually arresting otherworld, and the narrative is mostly captivating. It’s nice to see giallo, which, while an enjoyable subgenre, features an awful lot of misogyny and straight male gaze-driven camerawork, get a subversively gay bent. But sometimes we feel like we’re watching Knife + Heart from a few miles away. It’s a movie that wants to draw us in and in certain moments get personal. But it can’t help but keep us at an arm’s length. B