Knife + Heart (original title: Un Couteau dans le Coeur) is a French movie directed by Yann Gonzalez (director of You and the Night, also projected at Cannes in 2013) that became my most anticipated Cannes release as soon as I read its wild synopsis.
In 1979’s Paris, a serial killer goes after the actors of low-cost gay porn movies produced by Anne, Vanessa Paradis (A Monster In Paris, The Magic Roundabout), a woman whose life turns into shambles after her long-time lover, Loïs, Kate Moran (Saint Laurent, Beloved), editor of her movies, breaks up with her.
To keep her business afloat, and prove to Loïs that she has her life in order, Anne starts to investigate who the serial killer might be.
After watching Knife + Heart, I can sum the movie up even more accurately with just two words: gay giallo.
Same stylish camerawork, same unrealistic acting and dialogues, same bizarre soundtrack, same whodunnit plot using horror and sex and murders than the 60s and 70s Italian movies of that genre (see: Dario Argento’s Suspiria), but this time in the heart of the Parisian gay community, with almost only gay characters.
The actors are all excellent, and while Vanessa Paradis’ acting can be unsettling at first – very theatrical, with overwritten lines (a choice of the director, not Paradis’ fault) – it soon adds to the surreal atmosphere enveloping the movie and becomes the new normal for 102 minutes.
Despite Anne (Paradis’ character and the protagonist of the movie) being a very despicable person (unstable, uncaring, sometimes violent), her portrayal is so nuanced and full of love that we can’t help but root for her.
The other characters, while less developed (not that Anne is a particularly well-developed character either), are all intriguing and fascinating in their own ways, especially the other two main characters (without counting the mysterious killer).
Archibald, Nicolas Maury (Metamorphosis, Paris, Je T’aime), an actor and sometimes director of the erotic films as well as Anne’s friend who often makes the link between her and the rest of her cast, and Loïs, Anne’s lover and editor of her movie – a fitting job, as she is a calm, subdued and more logical person compared to Anne’s fiery personality.
She organizes and makes sense of Anne’s footage just as much as she does with Anne’s life, leaving her entirely lost after their break-up. The rest of the characters are all just as lively and engaging as these three.
Gonzalez clearly is having fun with his film, filling it with references to movies of the 70s and the 80s or with small roles and cameos that feel like easter eggs.
For example, French director Bertrand Mandico, known for atmospheric, experimental movies like Les Garçons Sauvages, plays a cameraman on Anne’s sets, or Ingrid Bourgoin, who played the customer of a lesbian bar in 1979’s Simone Barbès ou la Vertue (a movie that Gonzalez cites as one of his inspirations for Knife + Heart) and who here plays the role of a barmaid at a similar bar.
As for the sex and murders, Knife + Heart never crosses the line: there is plenty of both, but it is never vulgar or hard to look at.
The movie walks extremely well on that fine line where everything is explicit enough without ever being (too) graphic. There is also a lot of comedy – mainly with the scenes-within-a-scene of characters shooting their erotic films, scenes that become very meta as Anne gets inspired by what happens to her, turning into erotic parodies actual scenes we’ve seen previously – and most of all a lot of poetry.
Gonzalez’ directing, Simon Beaufils’ cinematography and M83’s soundtrack all merge together to create an atmosphere that takes you in instantly and never leaves you.
I don’t think there was a single shot where I wasn’t in awe of what I was seeing and hearing. Gonzalez perfectly creates a world that is both extremely stylized, extremely dark and extremely dirty.
The main issue of Knife + Heart, however, because it sounded too good of a film to be true, is the plot, paper-thin and overall not making much sense.
While on her investigation, Anne goes to unexpected places that look incredible and add to the eerie atmosphere, but only confuses the viewer further as to what is going on.
Some red herrings and plot twists happen, but none are especially surprising or clever, and the ending result is way too conventional for a film that should be everything but that.
This leaves me with one mystery bigger than the one in the movie: is Knife + Heart only meant to be a fun movie that looks incredible and that’s it, or am I missing something?
Is there a theme I don’t see, a metaphor that would suddenly make everything so much deeper than what it is? Could the killer be a metaphor for AIDS, coming out to disrupt the carefree lifestyle of the underground gay community of the late 70s, leaving them scarred and scared?
Or is the movie more about images, representation, what it means for scenes surrounding the murder of gay actors being turned into pornographic scenes to be consumed by other gay men?
Or is it about self-hatred, about Anne’s struggle to keep her life together, about her plunge into darkness?
Or is it just a nonsensical, thin, disappointing plot that only serves as a vessel to the great imagery and soundtrack Gonzalez provides us with?
I wish I had the answer, and maybe I will once I’ll be able to rewatch it, but before that I can only say one thing: Knife + Heart is definitely worth it no matter what the plot is about; the fact that I am still thinking about it weeks later is a testament to that. But be warned: despite how captivatingly beautiful the film is, its story will only let you down.