Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Cuts Like a Knife

Knife + Heart (2018)

Knife + Heart (2018, directed by Yann Gonzalez) begins with one of the horror genre's better visual jokes. The slasher film and the giallo mystery before it are notorious for their use of knives as the weapon of choice for their mad killers, presumably for their phallic symbolism. Knife + Heart takes this out of the subtext and makes it literal by hiding a stiletto in a dildo. It's right up front, too, at the start of the movie. It would be pretty funny if the murder involved wasn't so nasty. Knife + Heart is a movie that connects the fetishy nature of the giallo mystery with their black-gloved killers and posh bougie chic fashions with the equally fetishy world of gay porn, all while taking the "bury your gays" trope to such a height that it collapses on itself in the end. It works surprisingly well, mostly because satirizing and deconstructing the slasher/giallo movie isn't all that it has on its mind.

The film begins with Karl, a gay man cruising for sex at a nightclub in Paris. He spots a figure in a leather mask and the two of them go up to a private room to have sex. The man in the leather mask murders Karl with a stiletto disguised in a dildo. The news of Karl's death comes as a shock to his employer, Anne, who is currently directing him in a porn film. After the police interrogate her and her crew, she decides to rename the film "Anal Fury V" and looks around for an actor to replace Karl. She finds one in Nans, at a nearby worksite. Nans is straight, but agrees to appear anyway. The plot of the film now centers around Karl's murder. When a second actor, Thierry, is killed a pall of doom settles over the production. It's clear that the police have no means of protecting them, and maybe not the desire given their disinterest in the lives of gays. Anne re-titles the film again, this time as "Homocidal." Meanwhile, Anne is going through an acrimonious split with her girlfriend, Lois, who is also her film editor. After the film wraps, she hopes to reconcile with Lois at the picnic she's thrown as a wrap party, but this ends in disaster as Anne sexually abuses Lois, and worse, another of her actors is murdered out in the woods. Disconsolate, she begins to investigate the murders on her own, which leads her to an anti-gay murder from the past, in which a young boy, Guy, was burned to death with his lover after being caught en flagrante by his father. Something about this murder tickles the back of her mind, and she decides to stage one more scene for her film in order to draw out the murderer. Meanwhile, Lois has spotted the murderer, too, in footage from Anne's film. When she rushes to the shoot to warn Anne, she's killed, but after the murderer kills another of Anne's actors. Anne can do nothing but finish the film and put it into theaters. She watches the film with and audience in sequence with one of her other films. In that earlier film, she realizes that she has based one her scenes on Guy's murder, and that the actors who have been killed were all in that scene together. She realizes that she's a target, as is Nans, whose resemblance to Karl has not escaped the killer's notice...

Knife + Heart (2018)

As I said at the outset, Knife + Heart isn't only interested in reconstructing the giallo mystery for the sake of nostalgia. The subtext has always been political in the giallo. In the 1970, the Italian prototypes by Argento or Fulci or (especially) Sergio Martino were all about the pleasures of watching the wealthy bourgeoisie murdered while surrounded by the symbols of their own affluence, with the murder weapons sometimes being those very symbols. The politics in this film are no less radical, if less interested in class struggle as opposed to sexual liberation. The film is set in 1979, arguably the last year of uninhibited gay hedonism before the onset of the AIDS epidemic. "Yesterday, we came. Tomorrow, we die," one character laments, perhaps over-dramatically. But the point is taken. There is certainly an element of broad lampoon in this film, derived from the queer cabaret tradition (and also pointedly on screen--this film is up front with its provenance). The breadth of queer characters in this is refreshing, too, as if focusing only on gay men trivializes the onus society places on the entire spectrum. Anne is as queer as her actors. One of her actors has started transition and is going by Misia now. Nans claims straightness, but he seems pretty flexible. The breadth of representation here makes the ending wish-fulfillment revenge fantasy into a statement of principle.

Knife + Heart (2018)

The best part of the film is the middle, when the filmmakers dial back the camp factor and focus on Anne and Lois's relationship and Anne's subsequent investigation. The first is specific to those characters and is as painful as most break-ups are, maybe even moreso once Anne crosses the line into unforgivable behavior. This part of the film gives Vanessa Paradis a meatier role than as a borderline exploitative pornographer in the rest of the film. She's not just exploiting her employees for their queerness; she's part of their community, too. But her relationship with Lois seems almost a microcosm of her less admirable traits as an entrepreneur. She can't help herself. When, instead, she becomes an amateur detective in the best giallo tradition, the film starts to resemble other horror movie traditions. There's a mythological dimension to this part of the film, with it's story of the blind bird that acts as a psychopomp. This element of the film seems drawn more from the trippier surrealist horror movies that followed the Prague Spring than it does the giallo. The film manages to fold this back into the overall design of the film toward the end, though it's an uneasy fit with its more fetishistic elements.

The film eventually turns its gaze on its own set of reality and becomes an exercise in meta-cinema at the end. Anne's film, shown within the film frame big as life, stands in as a high camp parody of Knife + Heart itself. The exegesis of the film's events is contained as film within a film, too. On the whole, it's not as successful as the balance of the film, but it's hard to see how the film could end any other way. In spite of this, the film's end titles are suggestive of the ultimate takeaway it wants to convey. Its characters writhe in the throes of copulation, filmed in languorous slow motion, as if the film is raising a middle finger to death and celebrating life instead. And life, after all, springs from a good fucking.

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