Film Review | Knife+Heart: An irresistibly lurid swerve down giallo lane

Yann Gonzalez orchestrates a seedy-and-saturated trip down ‘giallo’ lane but takes a decidedly queer twist with this explicit downward spiral about obsession and murder

Pastiche and artistic nostalgia may not be anything new – in some ways, looking to the past is the animating germ of all art – though these days it certainly feels as though obsessively looking back to the immediate past has reached fever pitch.

Whether it’s the more rarefied work of David Gordon Green (It Follows, Under the Silver Lake) or the compulsive pop culture behemoth of Netflix’s Stranger Things – which will surely continue unabated onto a fourth season now that its just-concluded third ‘chapter’ has reliably raked in record viewing numbers – picking on the affectations and preoccupations of decades past continues to form the backbone of a lot of our current viewing experience.

But it’s a tendency that’s only really interesting – that is, beyond superficially entertaining – if what’s being referenced is inflected by a fresh, novel approach, or at least an askance look at the source-influence.

Thankfully, the Cannes Film Festival-feted Knife+Heart, written and directed by Yann Gonzalez (with the script co-written by Cristiano Mangione), very much bathes in the lurid, primary-coloured light of vintage Italian giallo classics, while offering a queer-inflected re-reading of the hyper-violent though often misogynist works by the likes of Dario Argento and Mario Bava.

Set in 1979 Paris, the film plunges us into the very particular world of Anne (Vanessa Paradis); a gay porn producer licking the wounds of a recent break-up with her film editor, Loïs (Kate Moran). While her obsession and denial begins to reach unmanagable – and highly unprofessional peaks – her professional life is further compromised by a shocking series of murders, committed by a leather-masked serial killer, who picks as his victims the stars of Anne’s films, which she creates in collaboration with her partner, Archibald (Nicolas Maury).

The one great thing about Gonzalez’s dive into the giallo universe is that this is not an arms’ length tribute, cherry-picking the outwardly appealing and rearranging it to create something easily digestible. The grainy seediness of the pure giallo aesthetic is very much present and accounted for, with the over-the-top stylistic tics – psychedelic longeours that make little narrative sense but that are undeniably hypnotic – serving as a break from the grit and grime that characterises the Parisian underworld our characters operate in.

Compared to similar homages such as the Toby Jones-starring Berberian Sound Studio (2012), which is brilliant as an apposite in its own way but far more ‘polite’ in overall tone, and Gonzalez’s film emerges as the more abrasive, honest and devilishly fun tribute to the subversive spirit communicated by the giallo aesthetic.

All of this is done while also addressing the inherent misogyny that’s undeniably at the heart of the genre – giallo grandmaster Dario Argento problematically says that he, “[loves] women, so I would rather see a beautiful woman killed than an ugly man” – but even here, Gonzalez eschews the polite, corrective route and cleaves to a punkier approach.

Largely limiting the murders to the coterie of gay performers in Anne’s orbit, Gonzalez moves away from the heterosexually-loaded murder sprees of traditional giallos. But even here, Anne is not presented as some kind of maternal figure whose chicks are being mercilessly dispatched. Instead, the porn auteur – gleefully enabled by Nicolas Maury’s tricksy and mercurial Archibald – channels her off-kilter psychological state into new productions that appear to be inspired by each of the murders.

Paradis proffers a game, unhinged performance that dances gleefully on the film’s melodramatic wavelength, once again perfectly matching the low-budget-and-low-rent giallo stylings that form the film’s backbone.

It is a seductively venomous edifice that’s painted into life with the help of cinematographer Simon Beaufils – who nails the unmistakable look so crucial to such a bald tribute – and an appropriately synth-heavy score provided by the popular electro-pop act M83.

In the wake of the expensive fart that was Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Argento’s giallo mainstay Suspiria, Knife + Heart feels like the kind of reworking of the genre we truly deserve.

The verdict

Raunchy, abrasive and entertaining as hell, Yann Gonzalez’s queer-twisted tribute to Italian giallos of yore packs a refreshingly subversive punch.  

Knife+Heart will be screened at Spazju Kreattiv Cinema, Valletta on July 17, July 26 and August 1 at 7.30pm, and August 11 at 6pm.