Here’s a movie that will be catnip to a very specific audience. Like having a very gay acid trip while viewing Dario Argento’s “Suspiria,” “Knife + Heart” is a campy homage to giallo — the Italian proto-slasher genre from the ’70s. Yann Gonzalez’s second film blends porno aesthetics and surreal, arty montages to create something akin to a drag performance. It’s a slasher as viewed with a queer lens, drenched in color.
It’s 1979 in Paris. Vanessa Paradis stars as Anne, a porn producer whose girlfriend and editor Lois (Kate Moran) has just broken up with her. A mess who drinks a bit too much, Anne resolves to make the ultimate film that will win Lois back. Meanwhile, various members of her company are being stalked by a leather-clad, switchblade-dildo-wielding killer, providing the idea for her magnum opus of sorts. Fantasy and reality begin to collide as Anne struggles to keep it together before the next person is murdered.
As one would expect of a movie about gay porn in the late ’70s, “Knife + Heart” is fairly graphic. It’s not afraid to get into the specifics of filming a gay porno, and this gaze filters down to practically every scene. Gonzalez demonstrates an eye for mise-en-scene, crafting artful frames that feel just tacky and artificial enough. This extends to the porno scenes, filmed in grainy eight mm and performed in wildy over-the-top fashion by Anne’s friend and fellow actor and director, Archibald (Nicolas Maury). For some, this can come across as trashy for its own sake, and they wouldn’t be totally wrong.
Underneath the gleeful transgression emerges a deeper sense of sadness and melancholy interspersed with joy. At times, it’s a world inhabited solely by queer people, as Gonzalez described it in an interview. This illusion gets punctured by recurring scenes suggesting the police don’t particularly care to investigate a crime centered mainly around “freaks,” even if it’s resulting in multiple deaths.
As with lots of queer art circling the late ’70s and early ’80s, the spectre of AIDS hovers like the crows in the film that appear next to soon-to-be victims. One could easily read the film as a metaphor for the epidemic that would shatter the gay community in a few years, as those in power did nothing. Later in the film, themes of self-loathing and homophobia turn queer people against one another, causing more pain and hurt in the process. The film isn’t particularly concerned with these topics— it’s content to make randy jokes and serve heapings of sex and blood, as well as the somewhat convoluted explanation for why the killer kills.
Anchoring the sumptuous and dreamy neon visuals is the equally dreamy score from M83 (a.k.a. Anthony Gonzalez, Yann’s brother). He draws from a well of vintage sounding synths punctuated by dramatic shifts of distortion and drone similar to his previous work like “Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts,” providing the perfect atmosphere for both dream sequences and club scenes.
“Knife + Heart” is very much a film made for one specific niche, and for some, the campy tone may be a turn-off. Stick with it, and the result is a stylish and dark thriller, unapologetically queer and confident in its moves: one of the year’s best.