NZIFF 51: Knife + Heart Director: Yann Gonzalez

Knife+Heart (Un couteau dans le cœur) is a gloriously taboo French thriller from director Yann Gonzalez, which combines aspects of erotic psychodrama and giallo cinema with a pulsating, dream-synth score from M83.

Knife+Heart will not be to everyone’s taste, which the film makes immediately clear in its opening minutes by establishing its tone as a boldly sexual and delirious crime-thriller. Set in Paris in the late-1970s, the film follows Anne (Vanessa Paradis), an emotionally acerbic producer of low-budget homoerotic male cinema who discovers her actors are being murdered in sexually grotesque fashion. Initially distracted by her former lover and film editor, Lois (Kate Moran), Anne’s behaviour becomes increasingly volatile, aggressive, and exploitative of the horror unfolding around her.

The performances by the cast as a whole are delightfully kitsch and liberated, with Vanessa Paradis capturing the highly intense and tacky nature of ‘70s fantastique and giallo characters while allowing a sexually volatile and explosive rage to simmer beneath her woozy, sinewy physicality. While the supporting cast are all brilliant in their roles, the standout performance is that of Nicolas Maury, who portrays Anne’s flamboyant and dryly indifferent sidekick, Archibald. Drifting through scenes with an innate vogueing to his movement, Maury ignites every frame of the film he occupies, providing the restrained, detached emotion required to magnify and polarise the unravelling of Anne’s psyche.

Surrounding the string of brutal, sexualised murders by a masked, animalistic sadist is a collection of surreal scenes bolstered by remarkable cinematography and a pulsating score by French electronic group, M83. At times, the film feels complementary to the unravelling insanity of Gaspar Noé’s Climax, from the detached heroin-chic feel of its opening club scenes to the David Lynch bizzarity of a grisly cabaret act. In Knife+Heart, art imitates life, and life dehumanises the art it inspires – the result tearing humanity from its characters and leaving them lost, wandering through reality in a state of confused sadness.

Exploitation and marginalised groups are spotlighted throughout the film, from Anne’s immediate willingness to exploit the deaths of her actors to the nonchalant response from the police, who consider a murderer who ‘gets off on killing fags’ to be a near-laughably low priority. Anne’s internalised detachment from those around her is often explosive and horrifyingly confronting – one scene sees her character restraining her former lover by the throat, before sexually violating her against a brick wall as she weeps and begs for release. These moments are shocking, and shockingly normalised, as we see Anne’s predatory nature pour over into manipulating a naive male construction worker, and illustrates her destructive, obsessive addiction to power and control.

Examining real-life exploitation through on-screen exploitative cinema, Knife+Heart is a challenging, unique piece of French cinema – one that both wears its heart on its sleeve, and conceals a permanent dagger beneath it. Leave your inhibitions and phobias at the door, and this visceral, exquisitely sexual film will provide an experience that is at times confronting, hilarious, deeply tragic, and immensely beautiful.

Oxford Lamoureaux