Dreamy, washed-out images of two beautiful men getting it on in an open field fill the screen in the opening scene of Knife+Heart, with a masturbating voyeur lurking nearby. Watching this unedited footage, we experience a few moments of what it’s like to watch the surprisingly tender Parisian blue movies that serve as the backdrop for a film that self-describes as “the queer slasher you came for” (I have to imagine that the pun was intended). Director Yann Gonzalez delivers on the queer erotic thriller premise and then some, crafting a masterpiece around fear and fantasy and exploring the feedback loops between life and art in a way that deftly escapes cliché.
Existing in a late-seventies cinematic universe populated almost exclusively by queer characters, Knife+Heart centers on the world of guy-on-guy pornographic productions dreamed up by the slightly unhinged, but nonetheless quite talented, Anne Paréze (Vanessa Paradis). Tragedy strikes when her longtime girlfriend and editor extraordinaire Loïs (Kate Moran) finally breaks things off for good, and although she doesn’t know it yet, one of her stars has just been fatally stabbed in the rectum by a switchblade-dildo-wielding stranger in a bondage mask. Paying self-conscious homage to the giallo tradition, this is just the first in a string of murders involving Anne’s actors, with the story tending towards mystery while Anne tries to hunt down the culprit.
In the midst of these murders, Anne seems to take the stance that the proverbial show must go on, using the investigation as inspiration for a new porno, which serves the dual purpose of trying to win Loïs back. This production, initially titled Anal Fury, is later renamed Homocidal once it becomes clear that the initial dildo stabbing was not an isolated incident. Scene after scene, we see Anne borrow from real life events to fuel her art, and while we could say it’s her way of processing tragedy, the crassness of it all suggests that Anne possesses a highly exploitative streak. Anne’s initial interview with the policemen heading the murder investigation is re-imagined as a four-way fuck-for-all between toes, fishnets, crotches, and typewriters, and a later phone booth call between Anne and the lead investigator is transfigured into an opportunity for explosive ejaculation.
Between hyper-aesthetic porn shoots, bloody neon deaths, and a synthy masterwork of a score by M83 is a melodrama of sorts, delving into the complicated relationship dynamic between Anne and Loïs. Anne is obsessed to the point of the problematic, spying on Loïs through peepholes and following her to a gay bar cheekily named “The Future” on more than one occasion. We never see the relationship at its best, only glimpsing shadows of what might have been through the booze-fueled decay of a decade-long love. In a scene highlighting French philosophy’s fascination with sex and death as two sides of the same coin, we watch Anne scratch something into the negatives of one of her films, which Loïs later finds while editing. The scratches, seeming at first to have been a destructive impulse induced by jealousy, are revealed to read “you have killed me” over shots of a man mid-orgasm. The idea of la petit mort has never been so literally rendered.
There’s much, much more to say about Knife+Heart, but I’ll have to save some of the analysis for grad school. Taking the slasher genre’s obsession with penetration and knives-as-phalluses to an exceedingly literal place, the dénouement is unsurprisingly Freudian. Ultimately, Knife+Heart serves as both a subversion of and a nod to genre tropes that implicate sex and sexuality in the bloody mess of horror. Oh, and it’s really fucking good.
dir. Yann Gonzalez
Screened Saturday, 3/23 @ Brattle Theatre. Also screens Friday, 3/29 @ Brattle Theater as part of the Wicked Queer Film Festival.
Part of the 21st annual Boston Underground Film Festival— keep watching this space for the Hassle’s continuing BUFF coverage!