Queer slasher films aren’t a hot commodity in this day and age. The last high-profile entry in the sub-genre was the film Hellbent, and that didn’t exactly set the world on fire when it was released 14 years ago (it’s pretty fun though, so give it a watch). Yann Gonzalez‘s new film Knife + Heart probably won’t catch on with the general public either, thanks to subtitle-averse American audiences. That is a shame, as it is a gleefully trashy exploitation film with a heart of gold that deserves a place in the queer horror hall of fame.
Set in Paris during the summer of 1979, Knife + Heart follows gay pornographer Anne Parèze (Vanessa Paradis), who is at her wits’ end when an unknown masked killer starts murdering her actors. To top things off, her long-term relationship with her lover and editor Loïs (Kate Moran) has recently ended. When the police put the murder investigation on the back-burner, Anne becomes increasingly obsessed with solving the case and begins using the murders as inspiration for her next films, Anal Fury and Homocidal.
For being a slasher film, Knife + Heart is surprisingly front-loaded when it comes to the gore department. A trio of brutal murders fill the film’s first act, but the violence takes a backseat to the ambiance after that. This isn’t to say the film isn’t violent. On the contrary, Knife + Heart gets off (haha) to a strong start with an opening kill that immediately calls to mind a certain sequence in Seven (though Knife + Heart opts to show rather than tell). While stalking a local nightclub, the masked killer takes a young man home and proceeds to rape him with a switchblade dildo. Shots of the stabbings are juxtaposed with shots of Loïs editing film in the studio, showcasing a ’70s visual aesthetic that permeates the film.
Shot by Simon Beaufils, Knife + Heart is one of the prettiest-looking films to screen at Fantastic Fest this year. Admittedly, this writer is not well-versed in giallo cinema, so I am unable to say whether or not the film accurately depicts that style of filmmaking. It does feature lots of pretty reds and blues, though, as well as plenty of blood and even a little bit of semen. Make of that what you will. Anthony Gonzalez‘s (Yann’s brother and part of French electro-pop band M83) synth score is equally impressive, and when paired with Beaufils cinematography frequently makes the film feel like it’s a legitimate product of the ’70s.
The film loses its footing a bit in the second act, which sees Anne go off on her own to investigate why feathers from a rare grackle are always found at the site of the murders. This digression is intriguing for a while, but Gonzalez and co-writer Cristiano Mangione leave many of Anne’s revelations the result of coincidence, which may leave you asking “Why did she go there?” more than a few times. It’s all a bit convoluted. The film rebounds in the third act, however, as the (again, somewhat convoluted) tragic backstory behind the killer is revealed during the emotional premiere of Homocidal.
Where Gonzalez’s and Mangione’s script excels is in making these queer characters actual characters. There isn’t a caricature to be seen in the film, as each character is treated with multi-layered and nuanced performances. This is especially rare in horror films, which frequently sees queer characters relegated to comic relief or quickly dispensable knife fodder. Even the killer avoids the typical “queer is crazy” stereotype that is seen all too often. His or her motive, which will not be spoiled here, ties into an event from his or her past, rather than internalized homophobia or something of that ilk. There is also a healthy dose of humor spread throughout the grim proceedings, mostly thanks to Nicolas Maury as Anne’s flamboyant second-in-command Archibald and the occasional visit to the the studio’s fluffer (affectionately dubbed “Mouth of Gold”).
Unfortunately, the film never fully delves into the social injustices committed against the queer community at the time, either. A passing mention of how the police aren’t prioritizing the case is about all you’ll get here. It’s refreshing to see the film treat the world of queerness that Knife + Heart inhabits as more normalized, but it feels slightly anachronistic with the ’70s setting and aesthetic.
Knife + Heart is a beautifully shot, moody slasher film with an involving mystery that hooks you from its gory opening moments all the way to the heartbreaking climax. It delivers relatable queer characters and the occasional moment of humor, preventing the film from becoming too dreary amidst all the murder and relationship drama. Let’s hope that there isn’t another five-year gap between this and Gonzalez’s next film.
Knife + Heart had its North American Premiere at Fantastic Fest and will be released by Altered Innocence in early 2019.