French filmmaker Yann Gonzalez is not unfamiliar to the world of the salacious, as previous works delve into the subject of unrestrained pleasure.
Prior to his new feature, Knife+Heart, his 2013 film You and the Night looked at the significance of connection with one’s sexual partners through the context of an orgy with anonymous participants. In his most recent piece, community is found through a team of filmmakers, actors, editors and crew producing gay pornography. When connections strain and the family fractures, it’s difficult to hold yourself together and prevent losing those you were once close to.
Taking place in 1979 Paris, Knife+Heart’s “blue film” director Anne (Vanessa Paradis) loses the love of her editor Lois (Kate Moran), who feels that Anne is developing a dependency on her. Late one night, a frantic Anne cries desperately for Lois to find her and save her from a recurring nightmare when Lois firmly tells Anne “It’s over.” Soon after, the bodies of Anne’s actors begin appearing as a serial killer seems to be targeting Anne and her troop of trash. The unfolding events act as a source of inspiration for the filmmaker, who inserts herself and her story into a project hoping to win back her love.
On the surface, the film can be interpreted as an homage to the 1970s horror of filmmakers Brian De Palma and Dario Argento. It’s clear that based on the film’s color palate, occasionally flamboyant male characters and its portrayal of the female protagonist that Gonzalez is at least a fan of Argento’s most famous slasher film, Suspiria. But the shot composition and usage of gay and trans characters leans closer to the works of Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio (Gloria Bell, Disobedience). Further adding to this comparison is how the two discuss love in their respective works.
Anne craves for a love that is reciprocated, a love she feels is unrestrained. In a scene where she is being questioned about the murder of one of Anne’s actors, she talks about what it is like participating in a scene of one of her films: “When you lose yourself with a person, or persons … It’s a form of love, powerful, voracious, boundless.” Here, Gonzalez meshes the professional with the personal, interweaving the eroticism of sex with the overwhelming feeling one has for someone they truly care for. But at times the question arises of whether Anne loves Lois or simply wants her back.
In one scene, Gonzalez uses a matched edit to show the internal fury and devastation Anne has seeing that Lois has moved on becoming externalized through the boisterous seething of the masked killer as he encroaches on his next victim, sealing the fate of another one of Anne’s actors as the fate of her relationship with Lois is sealed with a kiss. The strengths of Gonzalez’s film predominantly reside in this portion of the film’s narrative: it is brutal and emotional while still simple enough to convey without greater context.
As Anne decides to investigate the serial murders, the film strays toward a magical surrealism that doesn’t quite fit. Her investigation leads her to the discovery of an unusual bird, a shallow grave and heartbreaking visions of lost love straight out of a Ken Russell fever dream. It all serves to help unravel the mystery of the killer for the audience but the path that led to the discovery feels at least convoluted. We get a bird-person who is just in the movie for only one scene! Why would you do that to bird-person!? If incorporated properly like the element of witchcraft in Argento’s “Suspiria”, it could work. But Gonzalez’s narrative feels better suited for the simple though appealing to the eye mysteries of Deep Red or Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
Knife+Heart demonstrates the talent Gonzalez has behind the camera, and the ideas he plays with, though more complex than needed for a movie about a serial killer targeting gay (some for pay) porn stars, are worthy of exploration in his future works. It feels as though the narrative lacks proper symbiosis when the surreal elements of the story are integrated, similar to how a child has two action figures fight by mashing them into each other. Gonzalez shows that he is a capable storyteller; his stories, though, still require some refining before they can be deemed classics in French horror.