In the 2018 film Knife+Heart, it’s 1979 in Paris, and a porn actor named Karl (Bastien Waultier) catches the eye of a masked stranger in an underground gay club. The two move to a secluded room where Karl, expecting a sexual liaison, allows himself to be tied up. Unfortunately for Karl, a dildo the masked man pulls out turns into switchblade, and Karl’s life is cut short in a mix of ecstasy, terror, and pain, all in that order. Anne (Vanessa Paradis), a director of gay pornography, learns of Karl’s murder, and her jovial set is made gloomy as he belonged to her cast. The police find no leads, and Anne doesn’t show much empathy to the grieving crew. Instead, she does the only thing she knows how to do: She starts production on a new film, using it to reenact Karl’s murder before shifting the grisly events into a sexual escapade. When more of her actors are murdered, Anne begins her own investigation, during which a grieving woman tells Anne the story of her son, a young gay man who suffered a terrible trauma. Unable to put together the pieces, Anne attends the premiere of her newest project at an adult theater. But in attendance is the Switchblade Killer, who strikes one last time.
From French director Yann Gonzalez, Knife+Heart is a throwback to Italian giallo movies that found their beginnings in the ‘60s, thrived in the ‘70s, and tapered off in the ‘80s. While more recent films Malignant and Last Night in Soho were also heavily inspired by the genre, it’s Knife+Heart that pays the truest homage to the giallo movement. Gonzalez indulges in the high style of the genre, using harsh red lighting that blends in with the bloodshed and a score from M83 that is ethereal and melancholic. Set at a transitional peak before life went to hell for the LGBT community, Gonzalez focuses on queer life in the nightclubs, adult movie theaters, and porn sets that the killer turns into a hunting ground. Of the existing movie genres, a giallo may not seem like the most obvious choice to talk about the AIDS crisis. However, by using elements associated with the genre, Knife+Heart effectively criticizes how those in power ignored the epidemic while using two major characters to express how the LGBT community were further marginalized during the period.
In one respect, Knife+Heart is actually very different from a classic giallo film, which often included a male gaze, fetishizing female victims as they were killed by a mysterious maniac. In using gay pornography as a major plot point, Gonzalez was aiming to be both provocative and draw attention to a specific point in time. “I think there was a hedonism at the time that we completely lost during the ’80s and the rise of AIDS,” he told Film Comment. “And I wanted to portray that, to depict some characters, some free-spirited characters with no barriers, with no taboos.” Because of this, Knife+Heart never judges its sexually adventurous characters. Anne’s porno are over-the-top — more campy than sleazy — and Gonzalez allows the male-dominated cast to relish their sexual freedom. However, because of the work they do, Anne and her cast and crew are not taken seriously by the police once the murders start. And the violence perpetrated in the film is reflective of the real-life violence that was about to be thrust upon the LGBT community.
For nearly two whole decades, the AIDS crisis was left unchecked by those in positions of power. As the virus ravaged the gay community’s bodies, global governments were slow to react. In Knife+Heart, that marginalization is displayed on a smaller scale. In real life, LGBT activists rose up to do all they could to protect their loved ones and bring attention to the epidemic. Activist groups were formed and several adapted international chapters, such as ACT UP Paris, which took cues from its New York branch. By using a formulaic giallo plot, Knife+Heart mirrors this movement by featuring an amateur detective (Anne) attempting to solve the murders rather than the police. As in real life, when confronted by the rise of HIV/AIDS, the authorities originally took on the role of bystander rather than protector. As for the Switchblade Killer, the villain’s appearance is pure classic giallo — a black-gloved, masked and mysterious predator. The murderer can be seen as a stand-in for the virus itself: a faceless danger that taints sexual freedom. With law enforcement nowhere in sight, the movie’s finale, set at an adult theater, is a symbolic act of defiance. Upon realizing the Switchblade Killer is among them, the young gay attendees rise together to permanently end the murderer’s reign of terror. If no one will protect them, the community will take care of themselves.
Though Anne does eventually take on the role of amateur detective, she’s no hero, revealing herself to be almost as monstrous as the Switchblade Killer himself. Selfish, obsessive, and desperate, Anne harasses her ex-lover, Loïs (Kate Moran). By only focusing on her broken heart, Anne continues filming her new movie as the crew grieves the victims. And rather than using the film to raise awareness of the unsolved killings, Anne is focused entirely on catching the attention of Loïs. Despite her worst traits, Anne is a tragic figure, as a deep fear of loneliness consumes her and turns her toxic. Gonzalez spoke about this with Film Inquiry: “I love the idea of love going through the images. Like, a woman making a film and, believing with her whole heart that she could seduce again this other woman with just cinema, with her images. I love this idea of the feelings going through the images, like a venom, a love venom.” At the premiere for her newest movie, Anne catches a glimpse of one of her older films that she had forgotten about. She realizes that each of the Switchblade Killer’s victims, from Karl onward, were a part of that cast — a revelation that effectively makes the film’s central villain the most tragic of all. (Story spoilers ahead!)
During Anne’s investigation, she hears the story of Guy Favre (Jonathan Genet), a young gay man who began a romance with his friend Hicham. When their love turned sexual, one of their encounters was discovered by Guy’s father. In a fit of homophobic rage, the father castrated his son, killed Hicham, and set the barn the lovers were in on fire. Guy survived, though permanently scarred. Anne realizes she used this story and trauma as inspiration for the forgotten earlier film, but she changed the ending, replacing Guy’s devastating injury with a blissful orgy. After seeing it, Guy decided to seek revenge against those who retold his story so recklessly.
In revealing Guy’s horrible origins, the movie re-contextualizes the Switchblade Killer. His methods are horrific, but they come from a motive of pain and suffering. As Guy was disfigured sexually, his chosen weapon of a switch-bladed dildo is a way for him to take back his power. In killing off the actors involved in Anne’s past film, Guy steals the sexual freedom he was viciously robbed of by his homophobic father. “In France, it has been violent,” Gonzalez told Film Inquiry. “With gay marriage, which was only like four or five years ago, and then there were lots of people in the streets against gay marriage. Like straight families, with kids, thousands of people protesting, lots of protests. This to me was super violent.” His father’s assault turned Guy into a monster, and he took on his giallo identity as the Switchblade Killer. With no strong police presence to stop him, he did so with ease. No one but Anne will know why Guy went on a killing spree, and he will only be remembered as a threat to LGBT livelihood.
In having both Anne and Guy cause different levels of damage to their own people, Knife+Heart reflects how the AIDS epidemic tore through the LGBT community. Before the virus was detected more widely in heterosexual individuals, it was known as a “gay cancer.” The general belief was only gay men were infected, and, if they were to survive, they only needed to stop being promiscuous. Stripping away their sexual freedom — one of the only freedoms they had of the time — was considered health advice. But Knife+Heart isn’t necessarily a bleak film as it takes a look back at this time. When the murder mystery finally resolves, it ends on a hopeful note. Anne’s cast and crew create their own support system as guardians and siblings among one another. Ultimately, Gonzalez’s free-spirited LGBT characters, despite the challenges and marginalization they’ve faced, are allowed to persevere.