Knife + Heart: dripping with sensuality

The horror genre is like a washing machine – it runs in cycles. The movies of the 50’s were homaged, appropriated, and resold in the 70’s and 80’s; now, we’re seeing those derivative movies referenced and re-packaged in the 2010’s for a nostalgia-loving modern audience. Whether it’s a Carpenter-esque score, oozing practical effects, the neon splendour of slasher lighting, or the measured Steadicam cinematography of vintage horror, we’re seeing a ridiculous amount of throwback on the silver screen.

It’s surprising, then, to see Knife + Heart – a film which makes a splattery case for giallo by, well, making a completely straight-faced giallo. There are no references, no wink-wink-nudge-nudge sarcasm, no real modernisation; just a straight-up sleazy, at times incomprehensible deep-dive into European art-slasher territory that’s absolutely exhilarating.

Paris, 1979: a leather-masked figure brutally murders a young porn actor using a knife spring-loaded into a dildo. Anna (Vanessa Paradis), a gay-porn producer, suddenly finds herself in a tricky situation when her cast start being brutally murdered one by one. Inspired by the salacious crimes, and the ensuing investigation, she begins work on a new, true-crime pornographic project, hilariously entitled ‘Homocidal’.

Gradually, as with the films of Italian maestro Dario Argento, the plot begins to warp into something more unhinged and unbelievable involving magical birds, a healing forest, and strange, unexplainable supernatural forces. At what point the whole thing collapses into a heap of ridiculousness I can’t say, but there were more than a few moments where I felt as if I was waking up from a very odd dream, only to exclaim what was that about?

It’s strange to see such an on-the-nose, self-serious evocation of an art form currently thought to be a ridiculous facet of vintage horror; somewhat ironically, it’s more refreshing to see a style aped then referenced or homaged, because it doesn’t align with the horror status quo. Which is to say that the gonzo madness of Knife + Heart is thrilling to behold.

The one thing that the film does have that its influences arguably do not is emotion. Anna’s fraught, distorted romantic relationship with her editor, Lois (Kate Moran), manages to summon the angst of unrequited love; and the setting of the porn industry means that Knife + Heart’s characters seem permanently lost, drifting through the neon landscape looking for purpose and affection. It’s profoundly melancholy, and surprisingly emotional – especially in a stunning credits sequence that drips with sensuality.

It helps that the picture consistently looks beautiful – wonderful film grain (and genuine, too, as it was filmed in 35mm), bright neon lighting, and vintage posters/iconography litter the frame. Unlike many works in this genre, or the films of (for example) Nicolas Winding Refn, the stylistic excess feels both native to the production and the time, less imposed and more natural.

Gonzalez, whose brother is a founding member of M83, has procured an M83 soundtrack (as with You and the Night). Although not as spectacular as that earlier work, the dreamy shoegaze of the band’s synth instrumentals, and the ethereal, cosmic atmosphere of their music perfectly complements the out-of-this-world visuals and colour palette of Gonzalez’s direction. The production truly elevates Knife + Heart above other low-budget horror thrillers – these shots and sounds may as well have been from a much more expensive movie.

All in all, Knife + Heart is a fantastic example of how making something completely idiosyncratic and out-there can work supremely well in an auteur’s favour. Gonzalez may not win many new fans with his bizarre modern giallo, but those that like it are sure to really like it, and a cult following is almost certain to follow. Enigmatic, beautiful, and strange, it’s an at-times violent, viscerally weird throwback with a distinctly modern queer touch – seek it out if it sounds like your thing, otherwise, you’re probably better off elsewhere.


James is an undergraduate law student at UCL, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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