Sex and death have been bedfellows since time immemorial. Across drama and philosophy, le petite mort and its more permanent companion have always been seen as the great levellers of society. This sort of relationship is explored in plays like La Ronde (later adapted for film by Max Ophüls), and has proved to be fertile ground for horror and slasher films. But the dynamic between sex and death becomes more fraught, and unavoidable, when it’s explored in queer texts. From Thom Gunn’s masterful The Man with Night Sweats on, the threat of the plague (and the ghost) has made desire dangerous.
These ideas — sex, death and the danger of desire — run through the bloodstream of Knife + Heart, a lurid, darkly funny queer slasher film that exists in the world of French porn, full of people who would normally get shrugged off as undesirable. In a way that feels unique to queer people, they have a chosen family of fellow outcasts; during a picnic scene, the group seems almost like a sort of commune. But queer life is never that easy, and, as with the narrators of Gunn’s poetry, the characters in Knife + Heart find themselves being haunted by a figure of death who is explicitly linked to sexuality. With the film taking place in 1979, on the cusp of a decade that swept away a generation of the queer population, it becomes impossible to ignore the oncoming plague as Knife + Heart ties sex and death together.
The first kill happens within the opening minutes of the film. As Anne (Vanessa Paradis) cuts together a sequence for a porn film, one that feels almost like the work of Derek Jarman in its presentation of bodies and nature, an altogether bleaker cutting is taking place across town. One of Anne’s actors dances the night away in a leather bar, before following a masked man into a private room. What is thought of as a night of harmless fun escalates into a fatality, as the young man is killed by a dildo that hides a knife. He’s literally fucked to death. There’s something darkly funny about the lack of subtlety on display here, especially when taken in tandem with the ramrod used to deepthroat someone else to their grave. Knife + Heart is unafraid to ram its themes down the throat of the viewer, allowing the film to work on the surface level of a lurid, giallo-esque slasher, and on a deeper level.
By examining the pornography world, and following the dwindling numbers of a troupe who grow ever-more fearful, Knife + Heart is able to focus on something that is often ignored: the queer body in extremis. It allows for an embodiment of both physical and emotional desire to come through, an attempt to grasp at freedom even in the face of death. The characters still make porn, they still love and still desire. There’s something about their actions that becomes a cry of defiance, even as their own desires threaten to consume them.
In contrast to the physical desire and violence of the main slasher plot, Knife + Heart has a B-plot of what might be the breakup from hell, between Anne and her former partner Lois (Kate Moran). Anne has a great deal of difficulty saying goodbye to Lois; she follows her to clubs and tries in vain to get back together with her. Desire in Knife + Heartis described as something you can “lose yourself in,” and, indeed, lose yourself to. Anne seems to be a victim of the former; she’s completely lost without her object of desire, and she’s no longer herself when trying reclaim it. Haunted by dreams of burning barns, Anne links her desire to seemingly uncontainable destruction, even as a similar fate befalls those close to her.
With a film like Knife + Heart, there’s always a risk of gay panic, of the film’s queerness being demonised. Although the killings in the film take place during sexual acts, the motivation is not one of gay panic; instead, the way in which the killer and the victims relate to queerness turns each act of violence into a mutated form of desire, of little deaths writ large across the bodies of queer men. Desires both realised and thwarted give a sense of what these men and women want, what they need and how much they’re willing to sacrifice in order to try and get it.
The film has a deliberately lurid visual style, one that seems self-aware in the ways that it embraces camp. From the lights of nightclubs to the tacky dialogue in the porn films (and comically ridiculous money shots), Knife + Heart creates an interesting relationship between itself and the subject matter. The gaze of Anne’s camera, at once tentative and lustful, is a powerful mirror of the ways in which queer desire can often function, even more so 30 years ago now that there is a lack of certainty when it comes to acting on desires that fall out the bounds of heterosexuality, where rejection might not only mean rejection, but death. Of course, the opposite is true in Knife + Heart but it never uses this as a way to moralise, or to offer a cautionary tale on the dangers of queer desire. By having actualised desire become a cause of death, the film instead shows an acute understanding of some of the danger that follows queer sex, with the masked man of Knife + Heart becoming analogous to Gunn’s “Stealer,” a form of desire that takes and takes, with no care at all as to what, if anything, it leaves behind.
Knife + Heart is at once of its time and timeless. The design, the synth score, the amour fou — everything feels like it’s been plucked from the Brian De Palma and Dario Argento films of the 70s. The 1979 setting is a dangerous overture. But some things never change. Sex and death will still be the great levellers; to be out and honest about one’s queer desires will always carry with it an element of danger. But these bodies, both in the everyday and in extremis, and these people, are still defiant. They still cling on to each other. They still fuck. They refuse to apologise. Sex and death may be inseparable, but, to the commune of queers and pornographers of Knife + Heart, so are sex and life.
Sam Moore (@Sam_Moore1994) is a writer, artist and editor. Their writing on the intersections of culture, queerness and politics has been published by The Los Angeles Review of Books, i-D, Little White Lies and other places both in print and online.