Director: Yann Gonzalez
Stars: Vanessa Paradis, Nicolas Maury, Kate Moran
It was only a week ago that I was advising that Peter Strickland’s In Fabric is not the giallo love letter it might appear to be. Now, set to a dreamy score by M83, Yann Gonzalez’ Knife+Heart is the film that fulfils that promise; an LGBT romp through the ticks and tropes of 1970’s genre fare that is neither pastiche nor parody, but rather a sincere revisit to a style of the filmmaking that has simply fallen out of fashion.
The giallo, for those in the dark, is an almost exclusively Italian sub-genre that combines whodunnit mystery with the lascivious thrills of the slasher movie. Gloved and masked murderers run riot, while well-to-do socialites bicker over who is responsible. Gorgeous fashions and glamorous European locales complete the aesthetic of these movies, which became popular following the success of Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage.
Like the slashers that would explode in America in the early 1980’s, giallo movies came under fire from conservative critics. In an effort to defend these films, fans have often tried to reclaim them as misunderstood, arguing that many are, in fact, progressive in their attitudes to gender and sexuality. In honesty, though, that’s rarely the case. Knife+Heart, however, feels like an attempt to give this audience the film that they imagine already exists.
Anne (Vanessa Paradis) is a female director making guy-on-guy porn films in late 70’s Paris. She is ferociously in love with her editor Lois (Kate Moran); feelings which are reciprocated but, for reasons assumed toxic, have never successfully flourished into a stable relationship. While shooting a new porno with her regular cast and crew, Anne finds their numbers being whittled down by a masked killer, whose knife is concealed within a black dildo. The prejudice police are of little assistance. In the traditions of the giallo, it is up to Anne to play amateur sleuth to prevent further bloodshed.
Virtually all characters who appear on screen are either gay or bi-curious, making Knife+Heart a proud rebuke against the hetero norms of the genre which often classed its gay characters as sexual deviants. When meticulously recreating the feel of urban Paris in 1979, Gonzalez washes his characters in deep blues and reds, fetishising the neon underworld of sex clubs and porno theatres. An investigative trip out to the country, meanwhile, allows a nod to ‘rural giallo’, and you’d be hard pressed to separate these scenes from the real deal as seen in the era’s heyday. Anne is troubled by alcoholism and carries a bottle of whisky with her wherever she goes. It’s only a slight disappointment that this doesn’t turn out to be J&B (an in-joke that giallo aficionados would surely have revelled in).
Then there are Anne’s films within the film; her campy skin flicks with such titles as Anal Fury, Homocidal and Hex-Rated. The last of these feels like a gorgeously knowing nod to Fellini’s Satyricon; itself a queer retelling of ancient Roman lore. The others, meanwhile, find Anne turning her life into fabulous, gender-bent art, and could be viewed as postcards of affection that she sends from the set to Lois in the editing suite.
Knife+Heart is a post-modern film. With its cine-literate aesthetic and shaky rear-screen projections, it never tries to confuse itself with reality, and yet it still engenders sympathy for the broken-up lovebirds at its core. What’s more, the final unmasking of the killer and the retribution meted out by an angry mob of gay men is countered by a disarming display of empathy for his sick mind. Tears and acceptance for the devil? Knife+Heart acknowledges that hate crimes are tragedies from all perspectives. Talk about progressive.
And yet here we are, some 40 years on from when this movie is set, and these issues continue to dominate headlines. Pride month just came to an end, but within its celebrations we’ve seen some shocking new instances of intolerance and violence. Knife+Heart is a timely reminder of how far we’ve come and how little we’ve accomplished. In that, it is bittersweet. In most other aspects, its a lot of fun.