A plethora of eroticism, violence, cinema and obsession for the lover and the lover of film.
Yann Gonzalez’s Knife+Heart is a gritty exploration of obsessiveness in the realms of romance, sexuality and pornographic cinema, that will immerse you fully into the queer community of Paris in the late 1970s. In Gonzalez’s film, this community is tainted by a constant fear of a Leatherface-type villain knocking them off. The vulnerable, loveable ensemble is presented beautifully in a Giallo-inspired package shot on 35mm. The Parisian backstreets of 1979 come with a neon aesthetic only heightened by a clubby, sensual score from native electronic band M83 – led by Anthony Gonzalez, Yann’s brother. M83 also scored Yann’s last feature, You and the Night.
Our protagonist is alcoholic gay porn producer Anne, played by Vanessa Paradis. The camp and kinky predominate this particular landscape. Exaggerated reds and blues are used throughout to overtly foreshadow what is to come. While the graphic nature of the murders really leaves an impression – think dildos in the form of switchblades and ramrods – the scenes of shooting porn are presented in a soft and playful way. This is exemplified by the first killing, where an act of naive seduction involving BDSM morphs into a violent attack.
Although the film is rife with feelings of uncertainty and longing, it is balanced with sporadic comical moments. One scene sees the porn actors told by their director that they are wanted “naked and stiffer than President Giscard.” These are essential to counteract the gruesome phallic nature of the murders and solidify the familial bond amongst the posse.
The decidedly seedy cinematography has been criticised for being too predictable. It could be argued that it fits with the setting and hush-hush nature of (specifically) gay pornography. The porn produced by Anne is second-rate, tatty and lacking in real sexual passion. The distraught producer is pining after her ex-girlfriend Lois and in denial about the end of their relationship. The root of her obsession: heartache. After Anne is truly forced to let go of her co-worker-slash-ex, the shape of her production ‘Anal Fury’ transforms into ‘Le Tueur Homo’ (Homicidal) and strangely this sees an increase in the murders.
Paradis’ performance is convincing and startlingly disturbing, with Anne going through an enthralling character arc. Anne does indeed live long enough to see herself become the villain, tormenting her ex and going as far to etch ‘you have killed me’ into a reel to ensure editor Lois will see. The line encapsulates how fetishisation and voyeurism manifests through human desire. In Knife+Heart’s case, it’s an explication of film rooted in profound melancholy and fixation.
Throughout there is the persistent figure of a lurker, either in the form of an ex-lover, a film extra or the serial killer. An indication of success for any horror, Knife+Heart manages to make the premonition of death (presented in negative) legitimately scary. However, the climax proves unsatisfying in the reveal of the killer. This is where the film falls short, using stylistic choices as a crutch with the narrative being an afterthought.
Perhaps Gonzalez is exploring the premise that exploitation begets exploitation. As Anne continues to use the death of her actors as inspiration, mysterious deaths and grief ramps up for her companions. Culturally, it should be noted that the time in which the film is set was just on the cusp of the infamous AIDS epidemic of the 1980s – nastily coined as the “gay plague”. Whether purposefully or not, the film refers to chemsex parties, general substance abuse, gender fluidity and sexual assault, with a focus on vulnerable characters.
The film is a surprisingly fun watch but there was potential for more here. More humour, more horror, less of the plot handed to the viewer on a silver platter. Expected tropes, such as curious characters, ominous blackbirds and unhelpful police, leave something to be desired. Everything is a bit too easy to suss out. All the same, the genre bending of Knife+Heart is a great gag. Turning tragedy into low-quality porn is a twisty, weird set-up but proves inspired in its message on inspiration and obsession.
Knife+Heart (2019), directed by Yann Gonzalez, is distributed in the UK by MUBI, certificate 18.