In most cases, a man in a leather mask masturbating while watching a young man dance would be a red flag. But at the sex club in the opening of Yann Gonzalez’s Knife+Heart, this is expected and even encouraged. The masked man and the young dancer go home together, presumably for a night of fun. However, it all goes downhill when this man reveals he has a dildo knife and kills his partner. This is Gonzalez’s ridiculously delicious opening of his queer slasher for the ages about a killer tracking down porn stars in Paris during the summer of 1979.
Anne Parèze (played by the ethereal Vanessa Paradis) is a porn producer who exclusively makes gay male porn at a discount. Her performers are constantly demanding payment, even discussing their paychecks mid-blow job. Meanwhile, Anne won’t stop drinking her pain away after a breakup with her girlfriend of 10 years, who is also her editor. Amidst this turmoil, someone begins picking off her porn stars one by one, casting a shadow of fear over the studio. But while performing her grief, Anne decides to use these crimes as inspiration for her next porno, Homo-cidal. The narrative intertwines her desire to make the next great porn film, her investigation into the killer, and her declining mental state in the face of a broken relationship.
There is not a heterosexual in sight for this film’s duration, which is a breath of fresh air not only for horror film, but for film in general. Every space is a queer space, whether it’s the porn set, a gay club, a lesbian bar, or an all-gay picnic in the woods. Knife+Heart lets queer people take up space and lavish in it, until they are violently murdered. There are moments where it feels strange to have these queer spaces violated and rendered into sites of violence—why take away the one thing that these characters have? But through this violence the film tries to navigate how gay men and trans women are neglected by police investigation.
This speaks to Knife+Heart’s depictions of layers of queer desire and its seeming unattainability. Queer desire is constructed on the porn set as Anne and her sidekick, Archibald (Nicolas Maury), shout direction at their actors. Even in moments that appear to be dream-like states of gay sex are revealed to be porn sets. Gay porn, an object of desire, is a carefully-constructed piece of fantasy by a lesbian. Men are murdered during sex, interrupting their pleasure. Anne repeatedly tries to win back her girlfriend, but is constantly denied. Queer desire is visible in every frame, but it is out of reach, something we can almost touch, but is snatched away.
The unattainability of queer desire feels like an attempt to construct a queer utopia that is cut down over and over again by a dildo knife. Yes, every space of this film is centered around gayness, but what happens when those spaces are violated? The end credit sequence speaks to this creation of a queer utopia. Set on a stark white background, men make love to one another as Archibald, dressed as a faun, flits between this Bacchanalia of gay love, a dream-like orgy. Then, we are shown that the scene is being filmed, either for profit or in attempts conserve this image of gay perfection. But, as the overhead lights shut off and the camera turns off, what is left? Our own imagination, the possibility of queer spaces, and the lingering question about the possibility of a queer utopia.
Giallo elements add to this strange utopian atmosphere as scenes are awash in neon colors and each murder feels like a dream rather than a disturbing reality. Certain scenes, such as Anne driving in the rain, even feel like direct callbacks to the works of Argento. Moments of Knife+Heart prioritize style over substance in a way that only giallo can achieve. Sure they could offer more in-depth explanations, but who cares because these sequences are gorgeous. Paired with the giallo aesthetic is the music of M83 (who is Gonzalez’s brother, Anthony). The synth score feels anachronistic in the 1979 setting, but again creates an ethereal feeling of floating through a dream. In fact, the world of Knife+Heart may just be the stuff of dreams.
Knife+Heart is a messy film, but one that revels in its messiness. With splashes of giallo, it carves out a space in the genre for queer stories that don’t rely on harmful stereotypes or overdone plots to appeal to a niche audience. It is permeated with sadness, as character grieve the dead and lost love. Gonzalez crafts a beautifully demented story that pushes the boundaries of horror possibility and examine layers of queer desire through a mess of violence. Awash in pinks and set to a synth score, Knife+Heart is the slasher film of my, and many horror fans, dreams.