Knife + Heart, a new French film with a decidedly retro vibe, is not for the faint of…well, the faint of heart. Set in 1979 and starring Vanessa Paradis as a low-budget gay porn producer, the film combines the uninhibited sexuality of the ’70s with the slasher films of the era to create a pulsing narrative that’s as captivating as it is graphic.
Directed by Yann Gonzalez (who co-wrote with Cristiano Mangione), there’s nothing left to the imagination here, as a serial killer targets gay men, killing them in ways that begin as erotic encounters and end as horrific crimes. Before we meet Paradis as film producer Anne, Gonzalez throws us right into the deep end with a prologue that sets up the drama to come, as one of her more popular performers is seduced and ultimately brutally murdered by a masked man he meets at a disco. As these events unfold, we also learn that Anne was recently dumped by her own lover and former collaborator, Lois (Kate Moran). The combination of tragedies only embolden her to create an ever more daring film, discovering new actors to use in scenes that push the envelope even further than before.
If the film’s first act is defined by the X-rated scenes Anne and her assistant Archibald (Nicolas Maury) produce, male bodies gyrating and merging in ways that would make your grandmother blush, it’s all in service of the overarching narrative that emerges over the film’s nearly two-hour run time. As more of her actors fall victim to the killer, it becomes clear to Anne that she and her queer, trans and non-binary cast and crew are being targeted, and it’s in this revelation where the film, almost unexpectedly, finds its heart. Even in the most brutal moments (and rest assured, the murders are as graphic as the porn), Gonzalez manages to maintain a sense of empathy for both the victims and those mourning their loss.
There’s a particularly poignant picnic scene, where Anne and the boys take time away from the studio to cheer the wrap of their latest film. As incongruent as it may seem in a film that, at least on the surface, is about the cheap thrills of sex and murder, the picnic scene provides a moment of reflection and camaraderie among a group of misfits and outcasts who, especially in the era in which the film is set, probably weren’t especially accepted in “polite society.” That they have each other to lean on as they’re targeted for no other reason than they exist provides a welcome, if brief, sense of community.
Of course, Gonzalez doesn’t forget in the end just what film he’s making, as the killer must come to justice and Anne has to confront the reality of life without Lois. After quite the wild ride, both audacious and bloody, the film’s conclusion is as entertaining and on-brand as what precedes it. It’s not often a filmmaker has the guts to dive head first into a genre and era that’s as intense as Knife + Heart; thankfully, Gonzalez takes the risk and it pays off.
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