It’s the summer of 1979 and a serial killer is stalking the gay porn stars of Paris with a switchblade that’s holstered inside a large rubber dildo. The first victim is claimed after the murderer — whose identity is hidden behind a jet-black bondage mask — seduces him at a disco and then literally fucks him to death.
Subsequent slaughters are a touch less creative, but that doesn’t stop the violence from enflaming the imagination of an atomic blonde super-producer named Anne (Vanessa Paradis), who finds herself increasingly inspired by the sudden rash of death around her. It’s all a bit close to home, as all of the corpses come from her troupe of fresh-faced twinks, and yet Anne eagerly re-stages the killings as part of her meta new masterwork, “Homocidal.” Anything to impress her editor and ex-lover, Loïs (Kate Moran), who’s starting to think that Anne’s butter may have slid off her breadknife.
So begins an unclassifiable genre exercise that unfolds like a vintage slasher by way of Kenneth Anger, and proves to be every bit as fascinating and difficult as that sounds, if not quite as much fun. On paper, Yann Gonzalez’s “Knife + Heart” sounds like an entirely perfect follow-up to his 2013 debut, “You and the Night.” A pansexual fantasia about a gaggle of symbolic characters who get together for an orgy, the film compellingly melded elements of camp, smut, romance, Anger, and the self-aware stylization of Jean Genet into a chromatic fever that established its writer-director as a unique new voice in contemporary queer cinema (or just cinema, full-stop).
Flecked with some new giallo flourishes and a generous helping of De Palma-like psychological distress, Gonzalez’s frenzied second feature certainly finds that voice growing stronger and more confident. “Knife + Heart” outgrows (or obliterates) the black box constraints of its predecessor in favor of a broader canvas that stretches from a subterranean nightclub to an enchanted forest in the heart of France; from reality to fantasy and back again, using the scopophilic pleasures of sitting in the dark as a bridge between those two worlds.
At its essence, “Knife + Heart” is a story about the voraciousness of love, and the power that it has to subsume everything in its path. Anne remains frustratingly elusive to the bitter end, but her elusiveness is only so frustrating because she’s such a rich character. Not in the classical sense, perhaps — she isn’t driven by the banal distress of “motivation” — but her emotional makeup is like an empty carnival with all of the lights on. She’s spooky and waiting to be explored.
Paradis, who hasn’t possessed a role this challenging or dynamic since her indelible turn in 1999’s “Girl on the Bridge,” leans in to all of those haunted spaces. A hyper-aggressive alcoholic who doesn’t know her own limitations (because she may not have any), Anne is at once both reactive and burning with infatuation, like she’s trying not to die in a fire she deliberately started herself. Surrounded by a thick atmosphere of raw sex (Gonzalez once again using thick sheets of colored light as a form of psychological expression), Anne’s love for Loïs stands out as something intangible. Not better than carnal desire — and certainly not separate from it — but much harder to satisfy. It quickly becomes obvious that the whole “slasher” thing is really just a flimsy pretext to get into Anne’s psyche, but Paradis makes it hard to complain about that. At least at first.
It helps that she’s surrounded by an excellent supporting cast. Some of the actors are given strong characters, and the rest are blessed with strong faces. The most memorable of the lot has gotta be Anne’s flamboyant assistant, and reliable star, Archibald (Nicolas Maury). Devious but dispossessed, he’s like a human embodiment of the movie’s ideal tone. Other standouts include a Mexican porn star played by the reliably terrifying Noé Hernandez, and a sad fluffer who’s both the silliest and the saddest thing about the whole movie.
Or maybe the latter claim belongs to the specter of death, which haunts the story from start to finish. Gonzalez doesn’t call explicit attention to the impending AIDS crisis, but it’s impossible to ignore when you watch a number of gay men get killed by an unnamed killer in a movie that’s set the year before Paris’ first documented AIDS-related death.
“Knife + Heart” is constantly tempting your imagination with similar such detours, many of which are more rewarding and enjoyable than the main path the film is trying to walk. While hardly a minute goes by without Gonzalez leaving you something to remember it by (“let me smell your skin one last time” is an average line of dialogue in a movie where no conversation risks feeling colorless), it doesn’t often add up to all that much. “The more you kill me, the more I love you” jumps out as another memorable quote, but the film itself only becomes more distant as the body count grows.
Anne’s winding trip back to herself involves all sorts of strange encounters — including a trip to an old forest where she meets a guy who… actually, it’s better if you see him for yourself — but her feelings for Loïs never deepen, only tangle. And, after an opening credits sequence that has fun with Loïs’ editorial skills, it’s disappointing that Gonzalez doesn’t get more playful with his form as the film goes along.
For a giallo riff so light on gore, “Knife + Heart” is still a bloody mess. Much of the movie is held together only by the tension of its atmosphere, some credit for which definitely belongs to the shimmering ambiance of Anthony Gonzalez’s synth score (yes, he’s the artist otherwise known as M83, and yes, he’s Yann’s brother). Still, viewers that get into the mood — and definitely those who were seduced by “You and the Night” — will find plenty to love here. Perhaps they’ll even love it with an intensity that Anne might appreciate.
“Knife + Heart” premiered in Competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.