What is it about slasher films that makes them stand out as one of the best horror sub-genres? It is just a person just killing people with a sharp object and that’s it, right? Yes, but, that’s also the very reason why it has succeeded so well. Unlike the other horror sub-genres that involve fantastical elements like ghosts, demons, or exorcisms, slasher films have the one true element that still makes it popular and enduring to this day: the human element. The fact that it is a person holding a knife coming out to get you, makes for powerful cinema.
It is that one element that keeps the horror subgenre down-to-earth, realistic and immersive for audiences. In the case of 2018’s French slasher film, Knife+Heart, the horror sub-genre is gifted a notable twist, as it places the queer community in the spotlight, immersing a more diverse audience into a film filled with murder, obsession, unrequited love and unashamedly resolute kink. But with all those fresh elements, will Knife+Heart stand out from the crop?
Set in Paris, in the the summer of 1979, the film follows the story of Anne (Vanessa Paradis) a pornographic film producer, who is going through a bit of a crisis due to the break-up of her relationship with her film editor/lover Lois (Kate Moran). Balancing her struggling career with her tumultuous emotional state, she tries to win Lois back by making her most ambitious film yet, with her trusted and spirited confidant Archibald (Nicolas Maury) by her side.
But filming goes spiralling out of control when one of her actors is brutally murdered and Anne gets caught up in a strange investigation to find the killer, making her life go out of control due to her struggling to balance her ambition for her work and lovelorn yearning for Lois.
Does Knife+Heart standout in the vast pool of slasher films? Unfortunately, due to major flaws, it does not. But, it does provide ample entertainment thanks to the commitment from the cast and crew. Let’s take a stab as to how Knife+Heart works.
The vibrant and surreal cinematography by Simon Beaufils (shot in 35mm), the smooth and fluid editing by Raphael Lefevre and the energetically vintage musical score by M83 all combine to create an immersive and eye-catching look and vibe that allows the film to present a great first impression and consistently keep the audiences on their toes throughout, even when the pacing becomes more meditative in the second act.
An engaging lead performance from Vanessa Paradis certainly helps too. She delivers a character that is convincingly conflicted, ambitious, lovelorn and unconventionally matriarchal, in terms of her crew of her “lost boys” — “real men” she finds at dives and construction sites. Paradis is the lone figure that gives the film more emotional power and heart than the film perhaps deserves, thanks to her astute portrayal of desire, heartache, emptiness, fear and longing.
The meta-filmmaking BTS aspect of the film provides plenty of laughs, whether the humour is satirical (about how filmmaking tropes, particularly the thriller genre, with nods to Brian De Palma, Dario Argento, Mario Bava etc.), or physical. The first act is surprisingly funny and heartfelt in its depiction of how the crew collaborate in getting their film made. When the kills become more plentiful, the BTS scenes become more hazy in the way art imitates life and it adds to the surreal feel of the film. As for the kills, they’re graphic, visually alluring and have the queer touch that makes them stand out. Without spoilers, they are all executed (pun intended) in a violent fashion that can only be considered phallic.
One noteworthy aspect of Knife+Heart is how the queer community are portrayed, not as stereotypes or being alien in nature, but human beings driven by passion and desire and are open about who they are. This is portrayed very well during a picnic celebration scene, where we meet the entire film crew, consisting of gay men, cross-dressers and transgender women, as well as Anne, Lois and the director, being distant from them.
When the film gets to the halfway point, the pacing moves into a more pensive state, as the investigation takes a strange, yet interesting path, that evokes Walerian Borowczyk‘s The Beast, with the implication that the killer could be somewhat otherworldly. But, it is after that serene feel is where the film begins to drag and the flaws become apparent.
While the kills are good in of themselves, there isn’t much suspense leading to them since the characters who die are barely developed in the scripting stage. The pacing also dips to a crawl when Anne turns into an amateur sleuth and the investigations themselves become tedious. But, the final flaw is the big revelation of who the killer is, which may disappoint for its anti climax. But, considering the themes of sexual repression and how it applies to the motive of the killer, the ending does become quite emotionally stirring.
Overall, Knife+Heart is an effective hybrid of both the slasher genre and the erotic fantasy trope, all wrapped up with refreshingly queer aesthetic thanks to Yann Gonzalez‘s direction, Vanessa Paradis‘ committed performance, the memorable cinematography and musical score by Simon Beaufils and M83 and the depraved sense of humour.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Knife+Heart is screening now as part of the 2019 Alliance Française French Film Festival. The film festival runs across the country from March to April 2019, with staggered screening dates dependent on the city. For more information about session times and the rest of the films on offer at the festival head HERE