Photo: Altered Innocence

Gaspar Noé’s Climax opens with a title card proclaiming this is “a French film—and proud of it!” But it isn’t the only extremely French provocation packed with sex, drugs, and neon-drenched disco dancing to hit American theaters this month. There’s also Knife + Heart, Yann Gonzalez’s unabashedly queer tribute to the sleazier side of giallo cinema. At Fantastic Fest last year, Gonzalez characterized the setting as a “queer utopia” populated solely by LGBTQ people—and if that vision doesn’t entirely match the film, it’s still a delicious concept.

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A laissez-faire attitude is necessary to fully appreciate Knife + Heart, which is so faithful to its stylistic influences that it ends up replicating their weaknesses as well as their strengths. Like a vintage giallo film, Knife + Heart is bloody, kinky, and driven by freewheeling erotic energy. Visually, it takes slavish pleasure in replicating ’70s aesthetics with dizzying 360-degree pans, grainy celluloid, and intensely saturated lighting in bright primary colors. Of course, as with a lot of vintage giallo, it also prioritizes style over pacing and tension. The film’s initially straightforward plot still manages to twist itself in ways that, frankly, don’t make a whole lot of sense, necessitating voice-over in the last five minutes of the movie explaining what the hell we just saw.

Photo: Altered Innocence

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A simple plot description would skim over some very colorful details, like the pear-shaped fluffer nicknamed bouche d’or (“golden mouth” in English), the anarchistic girl gang of transgender sex workers, the bloody lesbian burlesque routine, and the bird expert with soulful eyes and a scaly chicken hand. But these are the basics: A troupe of gay porn actors is being stalked and killed one by one by a serial killer who covers his face with a black leather hood—a “leather-daddy Leatherface,” as our own A.A. Dowd put it in his review from Cannes—and stabs his victims to death with a blade hidden inside of a thick black dildo. The cops, of course, are completely ineffective, leaving director Anne Parèze (Vanessa Paradis) to lead the investigation into her actors’ deaths. She does so in between bouts of heavy drinking and obsessively trying to win back her ex-girlfriend, Loïs (Kate Moran), who still works with the troupe as an editor.

Brittle, manipulative, and insensitive to her friends’ fears until one of them is practically murdered in front of her, Anne breaks the mold of the naïve young sexpot who’s usually the heroine in a giallo film. Paradis plays this objectively rotten person with a great deal of sympathy, as a tragic, exhausted alcoholic tortured by unrequited love and her own jealous tendencies. The matriarch of this oddball chosen family, she’s really the only fleshed-out character in the film, her subconscious splayed on screen in the adult films whose integrity she so passionately defends.

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Photo: Altered Innocence

These movies-within-the-movie further blur the boundaries between fiction and reality, in so much as anything in this film can be called “reality.” Acutely aware of its camp value, Knife + Heart also uses its faux pornos to insert moments of humor into the story: Anne incorporates the real-life murders of Guy (Jonathan Genet) and Thierry (Félix Maritaud) into her new movie, Homocidal, starring Anne’s best friend, Archibald (Nicolas Maury), in drag solving crimes and getting foot jobs from lusty, mustachioed cops. (It is a porno, after all.) But while the film’s violence is relatively graphic, Gonzalez leaves much of the sexual content to the imagination, with only a fleeting shot of what appears to be an un-simulated blowjob violating his strategy of impishly framing all manner of debauched acts from the waist up.

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You may be thinking, “Well, that’s not very Gallic, is it?” No, the ineffable Frenchness of Knife + Heart comes from the lush, disco-influenced original score from French electronic outfit M83 (led by Gonzalez’s brother, Anthony), and from a studied fascination with queering classical aesthetics, most evident in a picnic scene posing Anne’s merry band of proud perverts in tableaux reminiscent of the Renaissance masters. As with its giallo influence, this continental sophistication has its drawbacks—namely, a sense of navel-gazing detachment that ironically renders the film’s most lurid scenes a little limp. Gonzalez seems to want us to admire the sex and violence rather than be aroused or frightened by them, a distinction that makes this perverse little thriller more of an intellectual pleasure than a prurient one. Still, maybe don’t watch it with your mom.