With queer retro slasher Knife + Heart, Yann Gonzalez takes us on an evocative, dangerous, journey through the sensual underbelly of Paris’s sex industry, circa 1979. It’s a world of underground nightclubs, porn theatres, cruising areas, baroque porn sets, and rain-spattered sidewalks, all populated with gorgeous queers and drenched in lurid primary colours. The attention to detail evokes Mario Bava whilst the, almost fantastical, use of colour and dreamy blurring of boundaries calls to mind the early perfection of Dario Argento.
There’s a leather-clad madman, armed with a bladed dildo, on the loose and no one at Anna’s (Vannessa Paradise) gay porn studio is safe. Whilst grappling with the heartache of a collapsed 10-year relationship and useless authorities, Anna channels her energy into adapting the brutal realities of the murder spree into her art.
Paradise is a powerhouse, cutting a sometimes-vulnerable, sometimes -predatory, silhouette through Simon Beaufils’ evocative cinematography. Her shock of blonde hair, chain-smoking, and knee-high red leather boots, give her the stark air of the femme fatale, a concept Gonzalez actively evokes to keep this whodunnit on edge. Since the police can’t be relied on, we follow Anna’s investigation, both cinematically, psychologically, and psychically. But she’s an unreliable narrator, a drunk who blacks out between emotional outbursts of heartache.
The film itself cannot be trusted either. Gonzalez blends brutal real-life murders with Meta 35mm projections of Anna’s adaptations, avant-garde pornography inspired by the crimes and investigation, monochromatic memories of trauma. But whose memories? This blend of tacky, poorly acted, pornography and vicious reality relayed with dreamy editing, hyperreal colouring, and an entrancing club-inspired score from M83, gives the film an air of sheer delusion. We can never be sure which interactions are real.
In other hands, Knife + Heart could easily be a mean, perhaps even seedy, film. If its giallo influences had perhaps been more on the B-List side, it would be a very different experience. Gonzalez has more interest in extrapolating from Bava and Argento, than he does from Fulci or Lenzi. There’s a sensuality to the slaughter and a heartfelt sincerity at its core, a sincerity which manages even to invoke sympathy for the film’s killer in its final heart-wrenching reveal. All in all, Knife + Heart is a film about perversion but not in the way you’d expect. Gonzalez perverts passion, love, and sex, finding fault not in the acts, but in the way people think about those acts. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, he reminds us.
Knife + Heart has so much to offer, besides exquisite visual nostalgia. Yes it’s a Giallo-inspired gay slasher, but its also a sympathetic look at queer sex work in the 70’s, a thoughtful rumination on breakups, a postmodern dialogue on the dangerous boundary between art and reality, and one of the most gorgeous retro slashers put to film.
Dir. Yann Gonzalez
Stars. Vanessa Paradis, Nicolas Maury, Kate Moran, Jonathan Genet, Felix Maritaud, Pierre Emo