Let’s get one thing out of the way: if a slasher film set within 1970s Paris’ gay porn scene sounds like something you’d enjoy, you’ll find a lot to love in Knife + Heart. From the onset, Yann Gonzalez’s second feature unfolds entirely within queer spaces that carry an air of orchestrated Gialli-esque glibness. It’s a fun setup for a film that, albeit sometimes messily, uses this dreamlike campiness to examine the resonance of LGBT support systems and the ways in which artistic ownership and violence can shape them.
The opening moments of Knife + Heart flit between the roar of a night club and the focused quiet of an editing room, where a gay porno is being cut together. As two men within the porno begin to hook up while another watches behind some bushes, a masked older man at the club picks up a lithe young dancer for what seems to be a pleasurable one-night stand. But, just as an outside party observes the action in the film-within-a-film, a malevolent third entity comes into play when the masked man pulls out a switchblade dildo and stabs his target to death.
For low-rate gay porn producer Anne (an atomic blonde Vanessa Paradis) this tragedy presents an opportunity. She’s been a mess who’s alcoholism has only worsened since her girlfriend and editing partner Loïs (Kate Moran) left her. After learning about the murder — which happened to one of her own actors, Karl (Bastien Waultier) — Anne sets out to work on an ambitious new film — cheekily named Homo Cidal — that crassly retells these recent events in an attempt to win her ex back. She and her right-hand man Archibald (Nicolas Maury) throw themselves into the production process with newfound vigor, but there’s one major problem — the murderer has caught wind of the project, and begins picking off her cast one-by-one.
Anne’s investigations into these murders soon lead her on an increasingly psychedelic path towards this killer’s origin, complemented by dreamlike neon magical realism and an anachronistic electro-pop soundtrack courtesy of the band M83 (lead by the director’s brother, Anthony Gonzalez). The masked killer himself is certainly a new take on the harmful trope that violently homophobic acts are mainly perpetrated by people that struggle to accept their own sexualities. He is the only one character who acts this way, an anomaly amongst the queer network of which virtually every other person in Knife + Heart is a part. For all the irreverence shown towards the murders within the film, watching repeat killings of queer men only years before the AIDS epidemic is inherently chilling.
By the time that the culprit’s identity is uncovered, the revelation is relatively airless in relation to Gonzalez’s meandering quandaries about violations of exclusively gay spaces, and the ethical ramifications of the protagonist’s filmmaking. Apart from the fluorescent gay clubs interspersed throughout the story, many of the queer spaces that the characters revel in — from the blowjob-filled sets of Homo Cidal to an idyllic picnic thrown for its cast — are products of Anne’s creative vision. In an industry where so many LGBT films have been made with a heterosexual, male gaze, with the onscreen queerness extensively sanitized to pander to straight audiences, there’s some inherent delight in watching a lesbian’s sensibilities inform a gay slasher piece.
But rather than resting on its laurels for these representations, Knife + Heart’s interrogations of how Anne marries her personal problems with the work she makes raise fascinating yet sympathetic questions of how queer creatives tell each other’s stories. Virtually her entire life is wrapped up in the making of pornos, from her collapsing partnership with Loïs and close friendship with Archibald to her actors, who she affectionately calls her “boys.” And yet, even as Anne investigates the killer, she’s effectively fighting for her career and own love life even as she looks out for her collaborators.
At one point, she wistfully tells an unhelpful police officer, “When you lose yourself with another partner or persons…when you lose control…have you ever felt that? It’s a form of love…voracious…boundless.” Anne loses herself in creating Homo Cidal in the same way — she’s more or less well-intentioned, but members of her team continually meet bloody ends even if the project is filtered through an empathetic, female gaze. As she finally faces off with the killer at a screening of this passion project, the audience is able to look past the film’s more fun campiness. Knife + Heart details a lesbian protagonist using film to come to terms with her pain, but the cost is considerable demolition to the queer community that props up this art in the first place.
Paradis imbues Anne with a desperate, matriarchal determination that gives her emotional arc pathos, even amongst the liberating seediness of 1970s gay porn. Gonzalez’s broad inclusion of Giallo touchstones intrigue make his second feature a deceptively poignant exercise in horror — beautiful and garnish as the next heavy-handed cut allows.
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