Fiction, 102’, France, (Un couteau dans le coeur)
Vanessa Paradis stars as Anne Parèze, a heartbroken gay porn producer in a neo-noir that pays homage to giallo films, but extends genre boundaries to dabble in the fantastic. Yann Gonzalez’s second feature film (co-written by Cristiano Mangione) may seem familiar, but takes its unsuspecting viewers into uncharted territory.
Paris, 1979. Anne is desperately in love with her editor and former lover, Lois (Kate Moran). In a bid to win Lois back, she signs fresh-faced actor Nans (Khaled Alouach) and begins producing her magnum opus: Homicidal. But filming is periodically interrupted as a grunting, gimp-like figure in a leather mask commits sadistic executions with a blade-concealing dildo—a possible metaphor for a scene, and city, soon to be overwhelmed with the start of the AIDS crisis. When it becomes apparent that the serial killer is targeting Anne’s performers, she attempts to aid the police in the hunt for the perpetrator, but to no avail. Anne consequently takes it upon herself to discover the psychopath’s motives and lure him in to capture.
Knife+Heart’s 70s slasher tone verges on the darkly comic at times and could have easily tipped over into spoof, but manages to conjure a sincerity in the love story and the pain that Anne inflicts upon herself through her alcohol-fuelled self-destructive actions. The first half of the film is pacey, aided by M83’s soon-to-be cult electro soundtrack, and although it follows a traditional slasher structure in which the unwitting characters are unaware of their impending doom until it’s too late, its rapid editing leaves the audience dizzy as movie reality and porn logic blend into one.
The scenes in the pornos are momentarily presented as reality, something Simon Abrams says was “a little too kitschy” and made it “difficult to sympathise with the protagonists' heavy concerns.” To which I feel the opposite is true—watching the deliberately terrible acting in ridiculously erotic portrayals of everyday scenarios reminds the audience that these are real people, just trying to make their art, that are being pursued by a cold-blooded killer—however kitschy said killer might be. These scenes are also ‘spoofs’ of moments from Anne’s own life, moments that we’ve already seen unfold earlier in the film with seriousness—a desperate phone-booth conversation to her lover (the second scene of the movie) becomes a dirty phone call with a cop (the location and dialogue inspired by the police officers that Anne is trying to help) that culminates in a simultaneous hyperbolic orgasm as comically copious amounts of semen spurt vertically into frame and all over the characters.
Not discussed in other places, as far as I’ve read, is the possible unreliability of Anne’s objectivity. While the actual murders take place outside of her point of view, which would point towards them having happened objectively, it is through Anne’s eyes that we witness most of the events that unfold. Our understanding of these events, or even the legitimacy of them altogether, could be thrown into question considering several issues, starting with the protagonist’s alcoholism, something that is addressed from the outset.
“I had a nightmare and woke up in the middle of nowhere, totally alone,” Anne says to Lois from the phone-booth, to which Lois replies: “Totally loaded, you mean.” Anne quickly responds: “It was all shadows and blood and death! I’m scared, don’t you see?” This could be a reference to the almost five-minute cold opening of the film: a woman (soon revealed to be Lois) loads a roll of 16mm celluloid onto a flatbed editor and scans through the grainy footage of two men copulating in the woods who are being watched by a third. All of a sudden, we’re in a dark club (now shot in crisp 35mm) and the younger man from the porno is dancing, surrounded by several larger men, all dressed in leather. From across the room, a tall man in a black mask watches them dance, touching himself, and lures the young actor away to a back room where he is tied down and bloodily sodomised with the the aforementioned knife-concealing dildo. This is intercut with Lois’ long fingers marking, cutting and splicing the celluloid. Immediately, we get a sense of disorientation—which movie is the real movie? Naturally, we believe it to be the footage that is cleaner, sharper—more movie-like. But is this the “shadows and blood and death” that Lois was referencing—which could imply that the murders are just nightmares conjured by her imagination? Or is this, coupled with her alcoholic blackouts, just a coincidence?
Arguably, the whole murder mystery could be Anne’s fantasy. After all, this is exactly what pornography is. Driven by her profound desire to be with Lois, has Anne constructed this whole episode, and placed herself in the role of detective, as a way of dealing with the heartbreak and rebuilding her ego? (Something that would not be dissimilar to Betty’s condition in Mulholland Drive).
Fantasy features not only in the DNA of the film’s world, but manifests itself in several other scenes. Anne regularly follows Lois to a nightclub where she watches her dance with other women. One night, Lois sees Anne following her, and tries to flee the scene. But Anne catches up and attempts to rape her. Another scene where Anne has organised a picnic for her cast, crew and new transgender friends shows her as the loving matriarch of this band of outsiders, and sees Anne receive something similar to a palm reading: “Anne, you have a gift too. Pay closer attention to your dreams…” The gift to which the reader is referring is what appears to be Anne’s premonitions, which shows on-screen as abstract flashes of inverse/negative monochrome footage. It is this sixth sense that leads her to Nans (the new boy who she hopes will redeem her), and that helps her on the path to discovering the identity of the killer. These three scenes could all be fantasies.
A crucial moment in her odyssey is when she meets with some kind of bird keeper to identify a glistening dark feather that has been found at the scene of each of the gruesome homicides. Deep in the woods, where rays of sun that leak through the treetops cause everything to glow like an old-Hollywood glamour shot, Anne is introduced to a tall, young man named Pierre whose left hand is grotesque and scaly with talons like that of a bird’s. His keeper, a middle-aged woman, says that he has a rare genetic disease that will soon cause his whole body to undergo the metamorphosis that his hand is displaying. Pierre tells Anne that the feather belongs to a bird last seen in the Chalare Forest in the 18th century, where people used to take the dying in hope of a miracle, when all hope was lost. Immediately, Anne catches a train to the countryside where an old man’s daughter (who bares resemblance to Lois in her clothing choice of dungarees and slender posture) takes an interest in her, and with whom she shares some whiskey from the bottle she carries. The mystery continues as Anne moves deeper into the woods in search of answers.
This sequence is at total odds with the rest of the film’s tone and style. It plays like a dream, twinkling and introspective, a fairytale-like analogy for Anne’s own transformation—in the forest, of all places. None of these fantastic elements makes sense relative to what has played in the first hour of the movie—and it could be read as somewhat sloppy. But its strangeness could be attributed instead to the possibility that this too is simply part of Anne’s fantasy.
During the closing title cards, Anne directs from behind a camera a group of boys in a white infinity room who caress and fuck around a waterfall in orgy. All of a sudden, Lois appears and approaches, looking like a goddess, dressed in white. Anne embraces her and they kiss passionately. Then, it’s over—the lights go out, Lois is gone and the boys stop making love. They all look to Anne silently, in fear of what she might do next. Then she smiles through tears, and the movie ends. Is this just another dramatic moment on a pornographic film set? Or is this the culmination of Anne’s fantasy?
Yet unmentioned is the exquisitely magnetic performance by Nicolas Maury (who starred alongside Éric Cantona in Gonzalez’s first film You and the Night), who plays Anne’s unaffected best friend and porn performer, Archibald Langevin, (and who occasionally directs the newcomers). Two sentences cannot do Maury justice, but the way in which he delicately and securely moves around Paradis in each scene oozes a certain command both as actor and character, yet never steals from Anne’s story, only adds to her presence in a way that reflects her turmoil and enhances her multi-faceted motivations—something Maury can also thank Mangione and Gonzalez’s screenplay for.
It’s clear to me that while it doesn’t entirely work—it lags at times and doesn’t exactly pull off the climax successfully—Gonzalez has made a film that avoids cliches and unnecessary caricatures, against a stark and important cultural backdrop, that requires several viewings to appreciate its tonal fluctuations, and asks its audience to look deeper at the psychology of its protagonist in order to see its full potential.
— George Louis Bartlett