Yann Gonzalez’s Knife + Heart opens with a promisingly terrifying, even poignant set piece. In late-1970s Paris, Lois (Kate Moran) is seen editing a low-budget “blue” flick where men fuck and frolic in idyllic woods straight out of a storybook, which Gonzalez crosscuts with a scene in which the porno’s star, Karl (Bastien Waultier), frequents a fetish bar. There, Karl is cruised and picked up by a tall stranger clad in leather, including a mask that obscures the man’s face, causing him to resemble a sadomasochistic demon. The stranger looks dangerous, which of course turns Karl on. And as the men leave the dance floor and enter a private chamber, Lois continues to edit her film, and the juxtaposition of these scenes suggests a yin and yang of the pleasures and perils of commoditized sex.
There’s power in having a hot, fit, young body and in knowing how it titillates people. And there’s relief in finding realms in which anything goes—a relief that’s not only sexual but soulful. But with anonymous sex there’s the possibility that one will put their trust in the wrong person. Maybe an exploitative producer, perhaps even a killer. In Knife + Heart’s opening sequence, Gonzalez renders these various emotional textures with a bracing matter-of-factness—with an empathy that only deepens the horror of what soon follows.
The stranger murders Karl, tying him up in a bed and stabbing him repeatedly in the back and buttocks with a dildo that hides a retracting blade. This profoundly disturbing scene explodes the subtext of many horror films, explicitly linking the spilling of blood with ejaculation, showing that, in this genre, murder is sex. More importantly, Gonzalez viscerally captures the terror of the victim, while also showing that the killer is a figure of stunted sexual desire who’s rechanneling his or her hunger into fury—a desire that’s evident in the killer’s tortured and orgasmic moans. In this scene, Gonzalez takes the gialli and its American offspring, such as Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and William Friedkin’s Cruising, and reroutes their sense of terror: from panic over gays to the panic of being gay in potentially hostile territory.
Gonzalez has a firm command of vintage gialli atmosphere, as Knife + Heart is awash in bright hallucinatory colors, genre totems such as black leather trench coats and pay phones, and a score—by M83—that lends the whole enterprise a synth-y sense of alienation. Formally, the film is to die for, but it goes to sleep narratively not long after its opening. Gonzalez might have stronger humanist credentials than De Palma and Friedkin, but their sadism—their emphasis on narrative and stylistic drive over character portraiture—enabled them to manipulate their audiences on an escalating level. Dressed to Kill and Cruising may pivot on disreputable fears and resentments, but they’re unshakably haunting and focused expressions of those viewpoints. Meanwhile, Gonzalez spreads himself too thin, alternately mounting a tormented lesbian romance, a serial killer thriller, and a rallying cry against homophobia.
Knife + Water soon settles into a holding pattern, with repetitive porno-movie hijinks and increasingly listless murder scenes. As Anne, the producer and boss of the men who are picked off throughout the film, Vanessa Paradis is alluring and commanding, especially when swigging a bottle of whiskey and nodding off in a porn theater—and so one may wish that her character’s alcoholic torment, primarily over her troubled relationship with Lois, had been allowed to take center stage or to rhyme more convincingly with the killer’s own estrangement. But Anne is saddled with playing detective, uncovering the killer’s pseudo-mystical motivations, which are ridiculous even by the standards of gialli, pulling the film farther away from its intense cat-and-mouse paradigm.
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