The giallo, an Italian horror subgenre that blends the grotesque of the American slasher and the fanciful nihilism and psychological thrills of the noir into a single diabolically delightful generic package, has always thrived on showmanship.
The genre’s best filmmakers — ”Suspiria” director Dario Argento and Mario Bava, among others — flourished on sick creativity, doling out cruel but fantastically imaginative fates to their characters and pioneering a genre that moves and breathes like few others, where every image is imbued with both darkness and fantasy.
“Knife+Heart,” the woefully underseen new gem by French filmmaker Yann Gonzalez, continues the giallo’s dastardly traditions in spectacular fashion, revitalizing and revolutionizing a genre long forgotten and carving out a space in contemporary horror for camp and queerness.
Many perfectly competent filmmakers have tried their hands at this sort of genre pastiche and failed to create anything remarkable. However, Gonzalez’s postmodern giallo is an utter masterpiece that pays perfect homage to the annals of horror and queer cinema by spinning them into something spellbinding and fantastically new.
It certainly isn’t high art, nor is it accessible by any stretch of the imagination. But this delightfully sleazy thrill ride about a gay porn director’s search for answers when her models are brutally murdered one-by-one, set in 70's Paris, is certainly unforgettable.
Part of Gonzalez’s brilliance is in his willingness to adhere to the gold standard of the films he’s emulating. Enough blood is shed in “Knife+Heart” to make Argento and Bava proud. The first kill of the movie, and perhaps its best, features a rubber dildo with a concealed knife blade that’s used to stab a porn star to death in the rectum.
It’s garish, gonzo and overwhelmingly gruesome, but powered by Gonzalez’s powerful sense of aesthetic and electronic band M83’s exceptional synth score, it’s dazzling just how perfect the moment feels.
Gonzalez’s adherence to the sensibilities of the classic giallo is so loving, and his vision so immaculately rendered that his movie transcends the label of tribute or pastiche. It is a giallo and an incredible one at that.
But “Knife+Heart,” a film that consistently eludes characterization, defies the norms of the genre just enough to feel like a work all its own. Gonzalez never feels bound by the tropes or story structures of the works he’s emulating, and thus his movie is never mired by a need to adhere to the rules. Like so many of its characters, it is a movie about subversions and rule breaking. And indeed, many of its best moments stem from that sense of liberation.
Unlike a great many giallos, which tended to be lean, narratively-focused and largely devoid of any additional plot threads that might distract from the gruesome mysteries at hand, “Knife+Heart” revels in the majesty of its characters. At its center is Anne, whose life seems already in shambles when her editor and romantic partner Loïs leaves her, and that’s before she learns of her rectally eviscerated star’s fate.
Both actresses — Vanessa Paradis as Anne and Kate Moran as Loïs — deliver achingly human turns as the pair of former lovers, anchoring this supernaturally tinged gorefest to a tangible sense of genuine pain and loss. And around them, too, is an equally exceptional cast of vibrant and wonderful performers who flesh out the cast of the porn studio Anne runs.
Each character is in their own right charming and dazzling, but beyond that there’s a legitimate sense of community that ties the entire film together. The movie’s genre play provides them a delightful sandbox in which to play, but it also never obscures its most vital themes or its defiant representations of queerness and community.
By its final frames, “Knife+Heart” feels more like a queer film in a giallo costume than the stunning genre exercise it sets out to be. It’s a sexy and perfectly tailored giallo outfit at that, a sleek leather bodysuit to match its air of defiance and sexual liberation, but one that never obscures its own heart and identity.
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