"Knife + Heart," an atmospheric and surprisingly playful arthouse riff on the slasher film, revels in the lure of the flesh. It's a glossy magazine spread of writhing bodies and bodily fluids. And yet even its more intense carnal crescendos take their cue from that most crucial organ in a lover's quest for fulfillment. No, not the one between your legs, but the one in your chest pumping blood to the rest of your body. The film's edges might be pointy and lethal, but they conceal a commitment to explore the ripple effects of a broken heart. Its hard-on is not for carnage, but for the interconnectedness of love, sex, death and cinema.
In this French production, showing this Sunday as part of the 2019 Miami Film Festival, the allure of the moving image mirrors the magnetic draw of a knife-wielding murderer. But the serial killer at the core of director/co-screenwriter Yann Gonzalez's neon-hued tale is not after nubile co-eds. His targets are male, sexually active and willing to go before a camera to show off their bedroom skills with each other. It's the summer of 1979, and Parisian filmmaker Anne Parèze (Vanessa Paradis) makes a living out of "blue movies." (Sample titles: "Anal Fury" and "Homocidal.") Her creative all-male (though frequently gender-bending) releases, however, are the last thing on her mind as the movie opens. Loïs (Kate Moran), her ace editor, says she no longer wants to be her girlfriend. Cue the drunken, teary-eyed call in the middle of the night and the pleas to give it another try, to no avail. "My heart has gone dry," Loïs tells her boss/ex-lover shortly before hanging up.
A splash of icy water, to be sure, though not nearly as cold-blooded as the masked assailant titillating his prey with a black dildo ... which conceals a sharp blade. Gonzalez, working from a screenplay he penned with Cristiano Mangione, mercifully leaves the more extreme mayhem to the viewer's imagination. Its more graphic visuals are shown in sudden spurts. The filmmakers are more interested in the link between a film splice and metal tearing into skin. Its nightmare fuel stems, not from tired genre tropes, but on hallucinatory imagery that brings Anne's dreams to life as monochrome negatives.
Download the complete Miami Film Festival program: https://2019.miamifilmfestival.com/wp-content/uploads/pdf/MFF2019-Printable-Program.pdf
And yet, despite a polarizing reception at Cannes, where it screened in Competition last year, "Knife + Heart" never feels heavy. Its pacing is measured, but its self-referential bent doesn't weigh heavily on the viewer. (Pretentious? Not to these eyes.) The film has sparked comparisons to Italian giallos, but its lush colors and dovetailing of crime and desire suggest what a remake of "Cruising" by Pedro Almodóvar would feel like ... with a little Brian De Palma and Kenneth Anger thrown in for good measure. In other words, this is not your parents' bogeyman.
As Anne's performers start turning up dead in all kinds of inventively morbid ways, the movie travels into ostensibly traditional murder-mystery territory, but Gonzalez keeps reverting the narrative back to Anne and Loïs' relationship woes. He reimagines the slasher film as a breakup movie, its phantasmagorical landscapes a breeding ground for a stimulating exploration of queer identity. Shooting on film, cinematographer Simon Beaufils alternates between vibrant primary colors in the nighttime scenes and softer shades in the daytime sequences. (When Anne takes her cast and crew to the countryside for a picnic, the screen shimmers with sun-dappled brightness.) Costume designer Pauline Jacquard has a field day dressing up Paradis in tres chic couture; a forest green rain slicker, paired with fire-engine red knee-high boots, makes for a winning contrast with Anne's dirty platinum locks. A score by the French electronic band M83 skillfully weaves together the camp and the chills with retro synth-driven flair.
When the cops tell her this murder investigation is not a top priority, Anne takes it upon herself to find answers, with help from her resourceful assistant Archibald (Nicolas Maury, who at times resembles Almodóvar regular Javier Cámara). But instead of heading in a more familiar, plot-driven direction, "Knife + Heart" grows harder to pin down as Anne attempts to put the pieces together. Her stubborn refusal to accept Loïs' refusal and try to move on feeds into her quest to unmask the killer. Viewers yearning for a whodunit's cathartic release will be left adrift in the midnight haze.
It all comes to a boil at (where else?) a seedy porn theater complete with a dark room. And this is where "Knife + Heart" subverts the portrayal of the murderer as the Other. An amalgam of Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger and the killer in Dario Argento's "Profondo Rosso," this nameless angel of death is not just a generalized personification of our deepest fears and inner demons, but an incarnation of an entire generation's internalized homophobia and self-hatred. The marginalized become the empowered as Gonzalez's spellbinder arrives at its potent, satisfying conclusion.
Which makes it all the more unfortunate that those programming the Miami Film Festival opted to bury this underappreciated selection in a Sunday night slot at the very end of the event. Consider this my attempt to shine a spotlight on a film that deserved a little more TLC from MFF. So take a chance, horror fiends of all persuasions, and fall into "Knife + Heart's" meta death grip.
Yann Gonzalez's "Knife + Heart" screens Sunday, March 10 at 8:45 p.m. at O Cinema Miami Beach. For tickets and more information, go to https://2019.miamifilmfestival.com/events/knife-heart/.