Knife + Heart is a slasher mediation on grief
WIthin the first ten minutes of Knife + Heart, Yann Gonzalez' modern day French giallo slasher, a variety of cinematic callbacks prime us on what to expect. There is a savage killing that essentially recreates a murder in WIlliam Friedkin's Cruising. Close up shots of an editor meticulously cutting up real film might remind you of Brian DePalma's Blow Out. Black birds show up ominously as harbingers of death, as in Dario Argento's Opera. You know right away that this oozes a love for a certain time and style in the history of film, and if you are like me, you are going to be very excited to see what comes next.
Set in Paris in the summer of 1979, Knife + Heart takes places largely on the set of a gay porn studio, where a single cast swaps in and out of various fantasy scenarios, churning out new films as fast as possible. Director Anne Pareez (Vanessa Paradis) has a committed vision for her films and runs the group like the mother of a family- the actors and crew members her collection of pariah children. She is barreling towards the end of a tumultuous relationship with her lover Lois (Kate Moran), also the house editor. When a former member of their troupe is brutally murdered by a masked killer, the cast wonders what befell one of their former members to meet such a grisly end. It isn't long before their current members start meeting similar fates, causing a lethargic response from a hesitant police and panicked reactions from crew members. However, Anne never shuts down production. Instead of retreating in fear, she turns the twisted events into plot ideas for new films, transforming the horror into on screen eroticism. It may seem too soon- but when living life in a subjugated community, you don't have time to waste on sorrow and grief- you need to turn the tragedy into new life.
Anne takes it upon herself to follow the clues and find who the killer may be- as the oddly paced film takes a new turn halfway through, unveiling new mysteries when it seems like it could end at any point. She is our audience surrogate, but unlike Al Pacino's homophobic detective in Cruising, she is deeply a part of this community already. There is no outsider, straight male gaze gawking at the horrors of this world. Instead, there is a queer lens shot from within, as we are put in the place of someone trying to find out who is killing her friends.
The place and time capture a world that was about to change rapidly. Gonzalez may be trying to place the sudden threat as a representative of the impending doom of HIV and AIDS, which would soon forever change this world. It is hard not to see the slow, uncaring response of the police as a link to the apathetic response of the government and health organizations to stalling the outbreak and finding effective preventions and treatments. It is the same feeling that Cruising was able to capture, only with the gift of hindsight, and with a sense of compassion and empathy, instead of Friedkin's leering voyeurism. It seems as if Knife + Heart is itself a critique on that film- not gawking at these characters from the outside, but going within.
Knife + Heart looks and sounds beautiful, with considerable help from director Yann's brother Anthony (you already know him as M83, doing his best film score work yet). Beyond the meaning and symbolism, it is a film about the pain of loving and losing- and the seeking of ecstasy and pleasure while we are alive on this earth for such a short time. It wormed its way inside my brain and heart, like a strange dream I hope to have one day. Stay for the credits.
Knife + Heart opens in Philly theaters today.