VANESSA PARADIS STARS IN YANN GONZALEZ THRILLER SET IN 1970s' PARIS
Yann Gonzalez' Knife + Heart premiered in competition at Cannes the other day, and brought the films of Brian De Palma to the mind of several critics:
Jordan Mintzer, The Hollywood Reporter
If Dario Argento, Brian De Palma and Kenneth Anger conceived a three-way love child while watching Cruising and listening to a Giorgio Moroder mix tape, the result would be something like French director Yann Gonzalez’s Knife + Heart (Un couteau dans le coeur).
Taking the erotic kitsch and glamorously trashy aesthetics of his many shorts and first feature, You and the Night, to the next level, Gonzalez uses a murder mystery set in the late-'70s gay porn industry to explore deeper themes of desire, abandon and sexual repression, all of it with plenty of humor and blood splatters. Playing the same late slot that Good Time and Drive did in previous festival editions, the film should add a needed dose of glitz and gore to an otherwise tame Cannes competition, with potential for crossover appeal in France and elsewhere.
Shot on 35mm by Simon Beaufils and backed by a throbbing retro score from Gallic electro rockers M83 (one of whose founding members is the director’s brother), Knife hits you from its very first frame — and this is really a frame of celluloid and not a file of gigabytes — as a work engulfed in the pleasures of filmmaking's past.
In the beguiling opening sequence, Gonzalez cuts between an editor splicing 16mm footage; a porno movie shot somewhere in the countryside; and scenes of its young, waifish star heading out to a nightclub and meeting a man in a leather mask. Anyone who’s seen the 1980 Friedkin-Pacino movie or the works of giallo auteurs like Argento or Lucio Fulci can imagine where this late-night encounter is headed, though the director tosses in one of several surprises when the murder weapon turns out to be a black dildo armed with a switchblade. This is not your typical slasher pic.
The young victim was the latest muse of 40-something gay porn producer Anne (Vanessa Paradis), who has built up a sizable filmography of semiautobiographical skin flicks with cheeky titles like Anal Fury or Homocidal. With the help of her favorite actor-director Archibald (a hilarious Nicolas Maury), her editor and former lover Lois (American actress Kate Moran) and a fluffer nicknamed Golden Mouth (Pierre Pilol) — or Bouche d’or in French (not to be confused with Palme d’or) — Anne is as passionate about her oeuvre as any self-respecting Gallic auteur, even if her movies only play at a seedy Parisian XXX theater that also doubles as a cruising spot.
Gonzalez has a good time exploring the slapstick behind-the-scenes side of Anne’s productions, although when we first meet the woman, she's totally grief-stricken after breaking up with longtime girlfriend Lois, who’s had enough of her drunken shenanigans. Anne’s work is further compromised by the fact that castmembers keep dying left and right, with each killing beautifully, and sometimes comically, staged in a different setting: a forest during a wind storm, a late-night parking lot, the movie set itself. She soon decides to embark on an ambitious new feature that re-creates the murders in front of the camera, while investigating the murders behind it, as Knife transforms into a film within a film that blurs the boundaries between reality, fiction, dreams and disaster.
The whodunit side occupies much of the movie’s second half, with Anne turning into an amateur sleuth who uncovers a trail of bread crumbs involving a former actor and his doppelganger (Khaled Alouach), a blind crow that looks a lot like the one in Game of Thrones, and a series of black-and-white flashbacks that reveal a dark family secret involving a character named Guy (Jonathan Genet) who may or may not be dead. It’s too much to handle at times, and the film’s rhythm dips a little during the closing reels, but the ending adds some needed thematic weight to all the B-movie antics by focusing on how sexual repression — specifically of gays — can spiral dangerously out of control.
Like in Gonzalez’s debut feature, Knife indulges in the seductive, sleazy stylings of thrillers and horror flicks from the '70s and '80s (alongside movies by Argento and De Palma, the cult classic Liquid Sky also comes to mind here), with cinematographer Beaufils bathing scenes in oversaturated shades of blue and red as M83’s vintage beats blast on the soundtrack.
Peter Debruge, Variety
Someone is killing the cast and crew around the production of a gay French porno in “Knife + Heart,” which provides an inspired opportunity to set an erotic thriller within the milieu of vintage Parisian blue movies. In the hands of gifted French director Yann Gonzalez, who leaps from Critics’ Week to the official competition with this hyper-stylized follow-up to “You and the Night,” an environment that might have once given exploitation helmers the excuse to stage some red-blooded voyeurism (à la “Body Double” or “Crimes of Passion”) instead serves as a backdrop for queer empowerment in what should be one of the hottest tickets for gay audiences this year.
Picture “Cruising” as directed by Brian De Palma, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from this frisky parody-homage, which is equal parts kinky and kitsch, rendered with the kind of meticulous attention to lighting, composition, and sound (including a reunion with M83, who also scored Gonzalez’s first film) that all but guarantees a cult following.
Tim Grierson, Screen Daily
Gonzalez, cinematographer Simon Beaufils and composer M83 (fronted by Gonzalez’s brother Anthony) conspire to make a moody whodunit with a dream logic that can frustrate anyone looking for a more straightforward crime story. In Knife + Heart, the investigation is given equal heft as Anne’s romantic woes and her company’s attempt to make their latest porn, although eventually these disparate strands will (somewhat) come together.
The film’s immutable take-it-or-leave-it ludicrousness has its bracing kicks, especially when Gonzalez stages the masked killer’s vividly violent attacks. (His weapon of choice is a dildo with a switchblade at the end.) Knife + Heart pays homage to disreputable genre films of old, not just mocking porn’s cheap production values but also the grimy pleasures of B-movie horror. Whether it’s Anne’s hip wardrobe or the flamboyantly revealed plot twists, Knife + Heart grins through its gruesome murders, revelling in the power of cinema’s pure escapism.
At some point, though, that style needs to add up to something, and Gonzalez comes up short, resolving the mystery inelegantly and failing to make Anne’s existential crisis absorbing. One suspects the filmmaker spent more time worrying about how to construct his retro split-screen suspense sequences — a clear shout-out to De Palma — than he did in developing the human beings in those frames.
David Ehrlich, IndieWire
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.