“KNIFE + HEART” (“Un couteau dans le Coeur”)
Paris, Summer, 1979
Anne (Vanessa Paradis) is a producer of low-cost gay porn. When Lois (Kate Moran), her editor and companion, leaves her, she tries to win her back by shooting a more ambitious film with his long-time accomplice, the flamboyant Archibald. However, one of their actors is found savagely murdered and Anne is dragged into an investigation that will change her life completely. Anne is desperate to go back to her lover but Lois won’t have it.
It is impossible not to notice the group of misfits that make up the cast. There is the playfully charismatic Archie (Nicolas Maury) who hangs around Anne. They and their friends form a family that starts to be decimated at the beginning of the French director’s second feature, a loving, winking homage to underground queer film and Italian giallos. When Lois dumps Anne, one of her porn stars shows up dead, in a pre-credits very gory sequence.
This is the first of a series of “grisly yet tasteful” murders that seem to chase Anne and that she will attempt to solve on her own, since in the great tradition of classic 1970s giallos, no one is going to help her. However, director Yann Gonzalez seems to lack the transgressive darkness and out-of-nowhere surprise that made the originals so daring. Nonetheless, his loving attention to detail is so precise and painstaking that it all but minimizes the genre’s trashy sensibility. “Knife + Heart” plays with gay porn and supernatural horror before resolving itself in the kind of throwaway B-movie plot of the 1980s. It is all in fun. For a film seemingly intended as a tribute to the Italian-thriller giallo directors, we must ignore some of the film’s tediousness.
A sexy leather-masked killer stalks the gay community, and succeeds in murdering two of Anne’s stars, a situation she translates into a comic erotic scenario for her new opus “Homocide.” There are many subplots including films within films, leather, nudity, phallic symbols and long knives. On paper, here is the kind of film those of us who love queer cinema have been waiting for. It’s set in the late disco 70s and about a gay porn producer but it does not always work. The film has been called a camp slasher thriller by those who made it but it is neither camp nor very thrilling and is really kind of blah. Anne isn’t very upset by the news that one of her actors has died because she is more concerned with her breakup from Lois. She is far more interested in her art than anything else, actually turning the murder and her subsequent conversations with the police into material for her next film. These little movies within the movie are the best thing about “Knife + Heart”. Anne is a hard person to be sympathetic to because we never really find out what drives her. We never find out why she picked gay porn, how she got into the business, or anything about her passions as a filmmaker. We never know, for instance, why she is making a film about the murders. She really just drinks and mopes about. Paradis does not give her character any life, phoning her way through every step of the performance. Her on-and-off love story with Lois is similarly unfocused and she gives us no reason to care about anything to do with these people.
We would think the presence of a serial killer killing her actors would compel Anne to engage in some introspection, but mostly she just stares blankly ahead. The epilogue simply tacks on a short movie that explains everything else in retrospect. Set before the AIDS crisis, the serial killer seems to be a metaphor for the disease that would later come. This metaphor is somewhat represented by the indifference the policeman have towards the case, that later foreshadows the French government’s failure to act when the crisis was at its apex. The killer’s lack of characterization can be explained away by the idea that he is more of a metaphor than a person. The murders themselves are neither scary nor amusing. It is, as if, the film still hasn’t decided which genre to take. It seems that director Gonzalez uses a murder mystery set in the late-’70s gay porn industry to explore deeper themes of desire, abandon and sexual repression, all of it with plenty of humor and blood.
The whodunit side occupies much of the movie’s second half, with Anne turning into an amateur sleuth who uncovers a trail of bread crumbs involving a former actor and his doppelganger (Khaled Alouach), a blind crow that looks a lot like the one in Game of Thrones, and a series of black-and-white flashbacks that reveal a dark family secret involving a character named Guy (Jonathan Genet) who may or may not be dead. It’s too much to handle at times, and the film’s rhythm dips a little during the closing reels, but the ending adds some needed thematic weight by focusing on how sexual repression of gays can go dangerously out of control. The film is a change of scenery and pace with some bright colors to it. Erotic frisson mixed with sexual imagery and a weird musical score. Vanessa here delivers a great performance. The actor who played the killer was told to keep the mask on all the time on the set so no one would know who he is so as to maintain a kind of killer ambiance. The violence is colorful and vivid. Contrary to what I said before, the film is audacious and beautiful.