Vanessa Paradis Hypnotizes as 1970s Porn Producer in Knife+Heart

FILM REVIEW

by Catie Moyer

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Giallo films are a special breed of film noir. They’re beset with unreliable protagonists, red herrings, and provocative sexuality. Yet something always tends to be missing. What was missing when I watched Knife+Heart was my knowledge that it was a giallo film. I satisfyingly found that out as Yann Gonzalez painted for me an opening sequence rooted in steadfast ode to the beloved sub-genre. 

In the opening minutes, graceful hands with a bright red manicure work an old flatbed film editor. The snapping reel rhythmically dances onto a small screen in the editing room, and we cut between a similar dance happening in an underground club. Haloed by colored lights, a waifish boy sways between two men with his attention drawn to a masked stranger cruising him. Back and forth, we dance with them as the edited film reveals itself to be a cheap gay porno, and the boy in the club is the star. The boy engages the masked stranger in bed, and as each aspect of the sequence climaxes, the set pieces of Knife+Heart are revealed: blue films and red blood.

Anne (Vanessa Paradis) is a producer of gay porn in 1979 France and she’s far from the female protagonists of old giallo. Anne is a woman in control. Her films are cheap and the pay is lousy, but she’s driven by a singular goal: to win back the love of her life, a film editor named Lois (Kate Moran). She enlists the help of Archibald (Nicholas Maury) to make her opus: a based-on-true events porn inspired by the death of her star actor and the film-negative nightmares that plague her psyche. Meanwhile, bodies keep being discovered. A mysterious someone is targeting Anne’s actors and Anne seemingly holds the key to it all. 

Knife+Heart is an enthralling queer horror film. The impressionistic sets of the day-to-day occurrences -- from impossible forests located in storage containers to supernatural weather anomalies -- generate a surreal ambiance. This world lives on the knife’s edge of our own, slicing molecules between fairytale and grim reality. It’s only in the moments of kinky comic relief that the truth of the absurd is laid literally bare. Just when we’re about to give ourselves to the psycho thriller of it all, there are heartbreaking moments to ground us back to a hard truth: love destroys. 

The most confounding thing about the film is that once it’s over, the actual murder mystery feels incidental. Yes, the driving beats of the narrative happen because there’s a killer on the loose, but Anne’s story and her trajectory as alcoholic porn producer whose personal life is spiraling out of control, is often more compelling and tragic than any black-gloved murderer. Vanessa Paradis is absolutely hypnotizing as Anne. She’s gap-toothed and dreamy-eyed while expounding to police officers the merit of losing yourself in love and pleasure. She’s also voyeuristic and transgressive. The character is reminiscent of Mark Lewis (Peeping Tom) and Norman Bates (Psycho) from 1960. Moreso, Anne feels plucked out of Greek tragedy -- a character driven by otherworldly intervention but humanly flawed. 

The closing sequence is enough to understand the mythology of it all. Anne narrates a tale of how the murderer came to be, a story impossible for her to know and more impossible to believe. The credits begin and the fantasy of a Dionysian orgy coated in white, clean lines reunites Anne with her true love. While beautiful, the heartbreaking truth is Anne has learned nothing. Things have happened to her, but she has not changed. She flew very close to the sun like the grackles, but still fell like Icarus into her own private ocean. 

Knife+Heart has been praised time and time again for paying homage to giallo films, as well as Brian De Palma, and rightfully so, as it paints a lurid portrait with the colors and techniques of the masters. But overlooked is the homage to the tragic hero -- the hero described in Aristotle’s Poetics, who suffers the fall through her own mistakes, whose pride leads to the deaths of others, and whose ultimate catharsis is fantasy. Knife+Heart is a rare masterwork of modern tragedy.