One of the more luridly stylish films of the year, this offbeat French thriller sets the Phantom of the Opera story in the world of gay porn. Filmmaker Yann Gonzalez calls it a kind of “queer giallo”, referring to the blood-soaked Italian horror genre (see Suspiria). “But I love to change tones,” he says. “So there’s a mixture of humour, melodrama and horror. It’s always going from one territory to another, and it’s always surprising, full of tears and joy at the same time.”
Knife + Heart is set in 1979 Paris, with Vanessa Paradis playing Anne, a woman who makes cheesy porn movies for a gay audience. She’s trying to win back her girlfriend, editor Lois (Kate Moran), by making a sexy movie about a recently deceased young actor (Bastien Waultier). But the cast and crew are becoming increasingly unnerved as hot pornstars are violently murdered one by one by a mysterious masked killer. So Anne begins looking into the past to figure out who might be responsible. Meanwhile, Lois is editing the footage together, and spots an important clue in the background.
The murders of these hunks are staged with grisly invention that plays on vintage porn imagery, pushing horny scenarios in provocatively shocking directions. It’s riotously gruesome (murder by dildo!), although the film is far more emotional than terrifying. This is perhaps due to the colour-drenched style of filmmaking and the heightened performances from the cast. Each of the young men emerges as an interesting figure with a distinct personality (costars include Sauvage’s Felix Maritaud), while Paradis’ subdued performance mixes yearning for love with a numbed reaction to the killings.
The film’s distinctive look draws the viewer in: a riot of primary colours (mainly red of course) and bleached blonde hair, with fantasy sex and blood-soaked deaths. Gonzalez is gleefully blurring the lines between the reality and the films within the film. It’s difficult to take the soapy plot very seriously, especially within the slasher-horror genre, but the camp tone makes it entertaining. And the filmmaking is so skilful that this movie could easily become a cult classic, which will allow fans to dig beneath the gorgeously superficial stylishness to find some deeper meaning. The period setting hints at the imminent arrival of the AIDS epidemic and the rise of homophobia.
“I think I just wanted to depict an ideal world, a world that would reverse not the values but the norm of our society,” Gonzalez says. “It’s such a patriarchal, manly and heterosexual society, that bringing a cast of characters that are 98 per cent queer as lovable characters, for me it was like an invitation to the audience. I didn’t want the homosexuality to be a subject. It was there, and that’s all. After a few minutes you forget that the film is only portraying queer people.”
He also liked the idea of using both porn and horror to tell what’s essentially a love story. “To me, sex and violence are cathartic,” he says. “But love was the inspiration. Love can be absurd. It can be excessive and super violent. So mixing gay porn and a horror film was just super exciting. That’s a strange mixture, and I love strange mixtures! It’s like the horror films I used to watch as a kid. They were cathartic and also super violent, and that revealed something in myself, something I didn’t know at a time. I think they’re the most powerful kinds of film, because violence brings the demons out.”