Gay porn slasher. If those three words don’t immediately intrigue you, then Knife + Heart was never for you anyway. The self-aware, over-the-top, and entirely extra French film premiered at last year’s Fantastic Fest, where its bloody layers of symbols and performances created a mille-feuille of whorin’ and gorin’.
Written and directed by Yann Gonzalez, Knife + Heart follows a gay porn studio led by Anne (Vanessa Paradis), a screw-up who’s in love with her editor Loïs (Kate Moran), and whose stars keep turning up dead – often after being stabbed by a switchblade dildo. Again, “switchblade dildo” is another pretty representative phrase that should be a clue to your interest in the film. The film oscillates between these murders – by a mysterious leather-clad figure whose gimpishness works like a moving, living shadow that conceals the identity of its caster – and the studio family’s reactions.
These reactions are shot with stagey, hungover, bleak realism (like throwback, no-frills porn) that contrasts well with the icky, sticky neon of the nightclubs and street corners where the crew lets loose and the killer strikes. The thrum of M83’s score, the constant perspective shots that treat an approaching killer and a departing crush with the same tragic intimacy – these warp your mind while you watch, stripping away your emotional vocabulary until it’s as bright and singular as the characters’. To cope with the killings, Anne begins turning the studio’s investigation into the murders into its own porn parody. Everything is communicated through a layer of sex, as it’s the only way its characters can make sense of the world. It’s The Neon Demon meets King Cobra, with the aesthetic reflecting the obsessed and stunted people at their cores.
Knife + Heart plays with allyship and its effectiveness all while trying to offer romance, murder, and good ol
’ fashioned sexiness.
As the investigation moves forward and more of the crew is killed, the film transitions genres to go full-scale conspiratorial and fantastical horror. It becomes a modern update to A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, where the homoerotic sequel’s subtext can finally be made text in adult theaters, lesbian bars, and sex clubs – the same link between death and queerness is relayed, only with the queer community’s fears clear as day.
Anonymity becomes deadly and the fetishization of authority figures (cops) whose repressed disgust belies attraction is as dangerous as it is sexy. You can make a skin flick about horny cops, but it’s a flaccid rebellion when they don’t care enough about queer people to investigate the killings. Add a schlocky, tongue-in-cheek, Hellraiser-esque relationship to violence and pleasure, plus a tragic (and tragically complicated) origin story for its villain – one right out of the Voorhees handbook – and you’ve got a movie that moonlights as a queer horror dictionary. Even dreams factor in, as the hazy, lazy daydream quality to many of the sex scenes act as a defense mechanism to the harshness of reality.
Anne goes to great lengths to figure out what is going on, which takes her to stranger and stranger edges of the world, though she’s still stymied by her own selfishness. Sure, her work is falling apart and all her friends are being murdered, but wow would she like to get back together with Loïs. The messiness of her character is fascinating to think about but often frustrating to watch, as the film can lose track of itself and add momentum to the list of things it kills. Slicing through queer men, who must rely on a white woman that constantly lets them down, Knife + Heart plays with allyship and its effectiveness all while trying to offer romance, murder, and good ol’ fashioned sexiness. Often the film achieves all these only when Gonzalez jettisons the leads, who’re too wrapped up in the plot’s symbolic requirements (as the actors playing porn actors playing versions of their murdered friends is usually more effective as a nod to the idea of performance), and allows those in the background to rule their space.
Queer men banding together to attack a presumed bigot in their adult theater, in the film’s most empowering and tragic scene, has a similar strength as a smaller scene of older women enjoying a drag show. These personal moments ground the seemingly ungroundable film, which only makes the bonkers moments (which come perhaps too few and far between to be a true midnight favorite for gorehounds) that much better. While unevenly paced and unevenly out-there, Knife + Heart is a ready-made introduction to a fringe world of killing and queerness that encourages viewers to think bigger and gayer.