[Review] Knife+Heart

Movies like Knife+Heart don’t come along often. Queer-themed slashers are few and far between and ones that could unabashedly be called “good,” let alone “great,” are virtually non-existent. So the fact that we have a movie with such lush visuals, a fantastic score and pitch perfect acting needs to be celebrated. I hope the LGBTQ+ horror community comes out to support this one, because it’s something special. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning.

Anne Parèze (Vanessa Paradis) is a rather notable gay porn producer who probably drinks too much and is susceptible to bouts of anger. She’s great at her job but terrible with everything else. Currently, she’s depressed because her relationship with her editor Loïs McKenna (Kate Moran) is on the rocks. The truth is Loïs is fed up with Anne’s temperament and her drinking and breaks up with her. So Anne throws herself into her work, in hopes that her latest piece will somehow rekindle their magic and they’ll get back together.

Meanwhile, her troupe of gay porn stars is dealing with a much more immediate problem: someone is killing her muses in a variety of graphic ways. The film opens on Loïs as she edits a porn scene starring a blond twink named Karl (Bastien Waultier) and in a fantastically shot montage, we follow both the action in the porn Loïs is editing and Karl dancing in a gay nightclub, the action flashing back and forth.

In the club, Karl catches the eye of a man dressed in black leather and wearing a leather fetish mask. He looks dangerous and sexy, at the same time. And so Karl follows him off the dance floor and to a more secluded room. What begins as erotic foreplay between the masked man and Karl turns violent as the man pulls out a black dildo that turns into a switchblade and proceeds to stab Karl over and over again.

When Anne finds out about the killing, she’s devastated. But she doesn’t really have anyone to turn to. The police get involved and interview her, but seem more interested in getting her to discuss her lurid job than helping out a gay pornographer or her fornicating queer stars. So Anne makes lemonade of the situation and begins crafting a new porn entitled Homo-Cide that starts to become both a farce of the investigation (or lack thereof) and an almost dreamlike mix of art influencing life and vice versa. But after the killer strikes again, a sympathetic police officer gives her one clue and practically tells her she’s on her own. So, armed with a feather, Anne is forced to take matters into her own hands, to discover who is killing her workers and friends, and why.

A few weeks ago, I watched Piercing, Nicholas Pesce’s fascinatingly humorous ode to giallo films. I appreciated what he was doing, paying homage to the films he obviously loved by incorporating music, visual references and in-jokes to that idiosyncratic subgenre. So it feels serendipitous that I’d follow that up with Yann Gonzalez’s Knife+Heart, a film that isn’t an homage, necessarily, but a film that could have fit perfectly in the 70s era of grindhouse films, Euro/Italian gialli and De Palma-esqe psychological thrillers.

Shot by Simon Beaufils on 35mm, the film is lush and gritty, with explosions of red and blues. I know some will call me a film snob for saying so, but there truly is nothing like seeing a movie filmed on actual film stock. Seeing this in a theatre would be exquisite and if it’s playing by you, you must go see it. Complementing the stunning cinematography is a score by the band (and Yann’s brother) M83. It’s no Italian progressive rock score, but it completely embraces the feel of those scores while establishing its own language. It embraces the retro feeling the movie evokes, while injecting more modern ambient synth-pop that M83 is known for.

Knife+Heart has an odd pace in that the murders are completely front-loaded and the second half takes on a more investigative cadence as we follow Anne on her quest to discover whodunit. The second act is where the movie might lose some viewers, as it fully embraces the absurdity of European giallo films with its more dreamlike narrative and slower pace. As Anne’s film starts to imitate life, life also imitates art and the story folds in on itself, the lines between reality and art blend. From a picturesque picnic that is suddenly beset by a fierce windstorm to Anne meeting a man with an odd deformity in an almost enchanted forest, the film’s second half indulges in the more absurdist whims of the films it honors.

This is all well and good, but what really struck me was the emotional depth of the story. On one hand, we have the love story of Anne and Loïs, two people inextricably tied together as coworkers but equally distant in their personal relationships. Anne is a severely damaged person who’s fucked up one too many times. But she doesn’t want to let go of her relationship with Loïs and desperately tries to win her back. Meanwhile, Loïs obviously still cares for Anne; it’s evident in the way Loïs lingers over frames of her and her smile as she edits Anne’s magnum opus.

But it’s obvious that their relationship has run its course. And, as Anne digs further into the investigation that hits closer and closer to home, she is also forced to finally confront her breakup and the emotional toll her journey will take from her. Loïs and Anne’s story hit me hard, particularly as the film came to an end. It was a well-realized relationship and I was so invested in the outcome, more so than the investigation.

But there’s another shadow that hangs ominously over the film. It’s no coincidence that Knife+Heart takes place in the summer on 1979, with the specter of the AIDS epidemic looming ominously in the future. It’s hard not to make the connection as the movie takes place on the cusp of the 1980s, when people started putting a name to the virus and it hit mainstream consciousness. Add an unknown and faceless killer who seems intent on killing gay sex workers with a switchblade phallus, and you have the ripe allegory for the AIDS crisis.

Also consider that the people (in this case, the police) who could put an end to the violence and help out a vulnerable community don’t consider the murder/epidemic a priority. It’s just a bunch of gay men; not worth the time it’d take. I won’t get into spoilers, but I will say that what really hit me and actually brought tears to my eyes is the way Knife+Heart flips the narrative. With subtle framing, Anne becomes a bystander to the carnage; a witness to the events plaguing her community. And unlike reality, the victims—the gay men of Knife+Heart—are the ones who become empowered and are able to fight back when faced with their own faceless enemy, hellbent on destroying their community.