On paper, Knife + Heart looks like the kind of film fans of queer cinema have been dreaming of. It’s set in the late disco 70s! Its about a gay porn producer played by Vanessa Paradis! And it’s filled to the brim with bisexual lighting! Yet in reality, it’s a tedious and lifeless slog that although intriguing for the mere fact it exists, really has no business competing for the Palme D’or.
A so-called camp slasher thriller that is neither camp nor very thrilling, Knife + Heart instead flattens both genres together into the same bland tone. The warning signs go off in the first scene, whereby clips from a porn film are juxtaposed with the murder of a young boy by a faceless murderer. This is an easy montage to get right; all you have to do is join up the phallic image of the knife with a cigarette or a bodily appendage, and there you have provided some easy camp thrills. Instead, in what will foreshadow the editing technique for the rest of the film, the timing is off, making for a deeply unexciting start.
Anne (Vanessa Paradis) isn’t very upset by the news that one of her actors has died. She has another problem — dealing with a break-up from her editor, Lois (Kate Moran). Anne is far more interested in her art than anything else, actually turning the murder and her subsequent conversations with the police into material for her next film. These blue movies within the movie are the best thing about Knife + Heart, melding satire and erotica in a way reminiscent of the early films of Pedro Almodovar.
Despite the merit of her art, Anne is a hard person to be interested in because we never really find out what drives her. We never find out why she picked gay porn, how she got into the business, or anything about her passions as a filmmaker. Why is she making a film about the murders? We never know. All she does is drink and mope about. Paradis seems uninterested in giving her character any life, phoning her way through every step of the performance. Her on-and-off love story with Lois is similarly unfocused, giving us no reason to care about anything to do with these people.
One would think that the presence of a serial killer offing her actors would compel Anne to engage in some introspection, but mostly she just stares blankly ahead, almost as if Paradis is wondering when the day’s filming will end. Additionally, in these types of films — mystery thrillers — it helps to keep the audience guessing. You will never guess here, as Knife + Heart doesn’t even seem interested in providing any genuine clues to hold on to. The laziness of the writing is represented by the epilogue, which simply tacks on a short movie that explains everything else in retrospect.
Set before the AIDS crisis, the serial killer seems to be a metaphor for the disease that would later come. This metaphor is somewhat represented by the indifference the policeman have towards the case, later foreshadowing the French government’s failure to act when the crisis was at its height. Therefore, the killer’s lack of characterisation could handily be explained away by the idea that he is more of a metaphor than a person — but even his presence is a long way away from Michael Myers. The murders themselves are neither scary nor amusing, as if the film still hasn’t decided which genre to take. Straddling this interminable middle ground, Knife + Heart is just really, really, really boring.
Perhaps the best thing is the luscious score by M83, which evokes a certain nostalgia for the era through its soft vaporwave sounds. Yet, to find anything of merit (at all) in Knife + Heart is to isolate it from the rest of the film. Taken as a whole, it is a complete disaster. The real mystery it poses is who bribed who to get it in competition.