Knife + Heart. Sex and death. You’ll know if Yann Gonzalez’s 2018 film is for you within the first five minutes. The opening cross-cuts between the editing of a gay porn film and a dingy disco, where a young dancer is seduced by a masked man. The pair retreat to a bedroom where bondage turns deadly. The murder weapon? A knife embedded in a dildo. Throughout the sequence pulsating lights flush between white and deep red, punctuating the violence and underlining its dark eroticism. A title card appears and we are told that we are in Paris and it is 1979.
From there we are introduced to Anne (Vanessa Paradis), a producer and director of gay pornography who travels everywhere with a bottle of whisky and carries a torch for her ex-girlfriend and editor Loïs (Kate Moran). She lives with her cameraman and actor Archibald (Nicolas Maury) and together they have gathered a queer community of actors, prostitutes and filmmakers who function as a dysfunctional, incestuous family. We learn that the murder victim of the opening sequence was one of Anne’s actors, and it isn’t long before another actor dies and then another.
Gonzalez’s film is situated within a movement that critic Rachael Nisbet termed neo-giallo: one of a series of twenty-first century works that pick up from the Italian gialli of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. These films run with the vivid colour palettes, baroque music, murder-mystery plotting and grisly psycho-sexual violence of the work of directors such as Dario Argento (Deep Red, Suspiria) and Mario Bava (Blood and Black Lace). In the case of Gonzalez’ Knife + Heart, the action is updated to include a LGBTQ cast of characters, adding a level of complication (due to the fact that the violence is not primarily male on female) to the cocktail of sex, voyeurism, desire and death present in gialli.
It’d be remiss not to mention the influence of American filmmaker Brian DePalma and even Alfred Hitchcock — foundational figures in the canon of thrillers (Psycho, Vertigo, Body Double) that equate the act of filmmaking with murderous obsession — on Knife+Heart. Anne’s response to the serial murders of her colleagues is to dramatise them in the form of a porno. This film, her “masterpiece” as one observer notes, starts out as “Anal Fury” before being retitled “Homocidal”. Throughout, we see Loïs editing the film, both scared of, and loyal to, Anne. The pair commune through the editing process, as Anne scratches dark messages into 16mm film stock and Loïs rewinds reels to catch fleeting glimpses of her former love.
Knife + Heart then is romantic, tragic, wicked and stylish. It concludes in a scuzzy porn cinema, as Anne sits down to watch “Homocidal”, unwittingly in the same room as the masked killer that has been terrorizing her community. Both sit rapt by the screen. The mysteries haunting the film unfurl, and just as it seems like we’re going to be left with a sad sequence that recalls the ending of Fritz Lang’s seminal serial killer film M, Gonzalez initiates a credits scene that feels almost utopian. This is a brilliant, strange, divisive film, consciously set in the months before the AIDS crisis.
The film is being presented by Scream Queens! x Queer Fear Leeds who are bringing Knife + Heart back to the big screen as part of Scalarama 2023. It’s a modern classic as far as we’re concerned, and much better to experience M83’s pounding score and Gonzalez’s wild vision on a proper system, with a crowd of likeminded fans.