Knife + Heart (2018)

JUNE 11, 2019


While slasher throwbacks are easy to find and occasionally even successful, few have been able to crack the code when it comes to making a modern giallo film. Things like Amer and The Editor have their hearts in the right place and certainly evoke that bygone era, but it always feels like an homage, as opposed to a genuine entry in the sub-genre. So I am happy to report that Yann Gonzalez' Knife + Heart, a French film that was on the festival circuit a year or two ago, finally gets it right - it's just a straight up giallo, one that uses its influences more carefully and always has its own story and characters at the forefront of its intentions. Every now and then I'd catch a whiff of this or that older movie, but then get pulled right back into their movie as opposed to thinking about any others I may have seen.

Set in the late '70s, our group of protagonists are the cast and crew of an adult film production house specializing in gay porn. A masked killer (leather mask, naturally - and yes he has the gloves to match) has seemingly targeted the group and is offing them one by one, usually using a dildo that doubles as a switchblade (!). The owner of the company, Anne (Vanessa Paradis), is the only one who seems to believe that they could all be in danger (the cops don't care much, given their background) and goes about trying to discover the culprit's identity while also trying to reignite her affair with Lois, her ex-lover who also works as the company's editor. As her only clue is a feather that was found at one of the murder sites, suggesting the killer may have had a bird with him (that'd be one of those rare direct references - you'll likely think of Crystal Plumage), she decides to try to lure him out by basing their newest film around the case.

The gay element aside (the older films were rarely sympathetic toward gay people, and were also "of their time" when it comes to misogyny), there's very little about it that would make it feel out of place alongside Argento, Martino, etc. The murder scenes are effectively lurid and suspenseful, there are some odd moments of humor, and the music by M83 (Gonzalez' brother, as it turns out!) is flat out gorgeous. But what really won me over is the mystery plot, which - like most of the ones I've seen - is impossible to solve ahead of time and largely centers on information that was never divulged or even hinted at in the first hour or so of the film. Some might find this frustrating (I myself probably lambasted a film or two for doing it in my younger days) but it's truly how a lot of them worked, and thus it's perfect.

The only drawback is that the connection isn't quite as solid as I hoped. The motive is clear and even kind of sad in a way, but it's almost completely random that they end up going after the cast/crew of the film, so you don't get that "it was YOU?" kind of moment that's always part of the fun (especially when it makes little sense), because none of them actually know the killer personally and Anne is the only one aware of their backstory at all (which she only learns out of coincidence to boot). Not enough to derail the movie or anything, but just a warning to those who are into the more "you reminded me of my mother who I saw cheating on my father with so I had to kill your friends" kinda nuttiness that we usually get in these things.

As for the sexual content, it was actually tamer than I thought! Considering the setting, and the fact that French films aren't as reserved as American ones when it comes to sex, I was expecting NC-17 level content, but it's not particularly graphic. In fact the only junk you see is on the murderer's dildo weapon, I think - even milder actions like kissing are brief. The basic plot will turn off homophobes and the like anyway, so I'm rather surprised they didn't go all out - it's actually no more explicit than Cruising, which played as the second half of this double feature at the New Beverly (and yes, I stayed awake through both, thank you very much). I had never seen Cruising before, knowing only its plot, and I was surprised to discover I actually preferred this - they're paced almost identically (I'd be willing to bet Cruising was one of Gonzalez' influences, in fact), but this kept me engaged and seemed to be more focused.

(That said, and skip this if you haven't seen Cruising yet, I inexplicably managed to call the twist without even realizing it. In the very first scene, a pair of cops (Joe Spinell and Mike Starr!) are harassing some transvestite hookers in their car when the camera cuts outside of it to show a man in a wide-ish shot, walking into a bar. His face isn't seen, but my first impression was "Oh that's Pacino's character, entering the story." However, it's then revealed this character is the killer... who turns out to (maybe?) be Pacino anyway. Wacky!)

Back to Knife + Heart though. No, it won't be for everyone, but as I've long since tired of the winking attitude toward making these kind of retro films, I was so happy that it WASN'T one of those that I found it easy to forgive its occasional sluggish pace and awkwardly staged climax, where the mystery is solved by being in the right place at the right time not once but twice. Most of the old gialli have plenty of things I could criticize as well, so let's not pretend it's the only one to muck a few things up. By getting more right than wrong, and treating the sub-genre seriously, I was more than sold on it, and hope fellow fans will seek it out (it hits Shudder next week, so that should make it easier). The only thing missing (unless I didn't catch it) was a bottle of J+B whiskey - just supply your own and have a great time reliving the glory era of this fare as if it never went out of style.

What say you?


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