When Dario Argento made The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970, it’s unlikely that he imagined its effect as a template for subsequent giallo films to follow. Nearly 50 years later, Yann Gonzalez wrote a love letter to the pulp genre (and Argento’s film) with queer neo-giallo Knife+Heart.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage certainly wasn’t the first giallo; Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much holds that distinction, drawing from the German crime lit-inspired krimi films that distinguished themselves with shadowed, black-gloved killers wielding unorthodox weapons. Films such as The Green Archer portrayed murder in a fresh, stylized way that paved the road for Italian filmmakers to tread upon down the line, in hand with the “Giallo Mondadori” series of sleazy mystery novels from which the genre gets its name. By the time Bava’s A Bay of Blood came around, the genre had fallen in love with graphic violence and stories that prioritized visual structure over plot (the film is credited as the progenitor of the slasher subgenre today). A myriad of films rest under the Italo-schlock umbrella, from the police procedural (The Black Belly of the Tarantula) to the high Gothic murder mystery (The Red Queen Kills Seven Times). Running through them all are definitive visual and narrative staples that endure in today’s neo-giallo, as displayed in Gonzalez’ latest.
Knife+Heart is, at its core, about desire and posession. Set in 1979, porn producer Anne (Vanessa Paradis) is reeling from a breakup with her lover, editor Lois (Kate Moran). A 10-year relationship proves difficult for Anne to get over, and she stalks Lois in the streets, at discos and even in the workplace (Anne scrawls the note “You have killed me” into the film stock for Lois to discover in the cutting room later on). As production continues on Anne’s latest film “Anal Fury,” her actors begin to turn up dead, one by one. The killer: a black mask-wearing figure, apparently channeling the assailant of Sergio Martino’s Torso. The weapon: a switchblade dildo. As the body count rises, Anne races against the clock to avoid becoming the last victim, but not before cannibalizing elements of the murder investigation as fictional fodder for her own film (and changing the title from “Anal Fury” to “Homocidal”).
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The average giallo is endeared to a glimmering blade as its weapon of choice, often wielded by a mysterious figure wearing black leather gloves. Knife+Heart’s iteration of the trope is a wild one: [killer] dispatches his victims with a large black phallus that extends a blade from its tip. The metaphor is an obvious one, but it’s intertwined with the killer’s vanished innocence. In true convoluted Italian thriller fashion, the culprit turns out to be someone unrelated to Anne and her production; a man who, in boyhood, was the victim of a hate crime and left for dead. Guy Favre emerged from his ordeal horribly disfigured, castrated and suffering from amensia until he sees one of Anne’s movies, then it all comes flooding back and he lashes out. The film as a source of torment and a vehicle for revenge recalls Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, complete with a kinky variation on the camera shiv used by deadly loner Mark Lewis. Throughout, sight runs parallel with ownership; to step outside giallo and paraphrase The Silence of the Lambs, “We covet what we see.” It’s a unique offshoot from a genre that generally punishes “seeing,” or witnessing, from The Girl Who Knew Too Much to Deep Red to Seven Notes in Black. Some readings of Knife+Heart interpret the killings as a metaphor for living while queer in the AIDS-emergent era. Regardless of how the themes digest, Gonzalez’s killer is a textbook manifestation of the concept that love hurts, and repression kills.
Knife+Heart’s perverse passion and high-gloss kink seeps into every frame. With cinematographer Simon Beaufils behind the lens steeping scenes in highly lurid Bava palettes of primary reds and blues, the French slasher oscillates between neon-disco nightmares and etheral dreamscapes straight out of a Kate Bush music video. Gonzalez posits cinema itself as voyeurism writ large; as Anne gazes upon a glimpse of her ex in the celluloid, so does Guy look at the avatars of his own queerness — and both voyeurs are catalyzed to toxic behavior as a result. The director’s dreams of the killer are shown in negative, providing a stark contrast to the world she and her co-workers inhabit. M83’s pulsating beats provide the pounding throbs of the same heart that bleeds obsession throughout the narrative.
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Where Knife+Heart deviates most from its predecessors is in its gaze. Past giallo works are overwhelmingly male, with a camera that lingers on bare breasts and revels in pierced, naked flesh. Beaufil’s camera in Gonzalez’s film instead lingers on mutual lust and sensual comfort. Anne’s crew is a posse of satisfied (albeit terrified amid the killings) companions who enjoy the work that they do. Several are killed, but the slayings don’t stem from the writer-director’s puritanical judgement; the killer lashes out at those who live the life he wishes he could have had. They are murdered for happily living their lives as they wish; no mask needed. Not only is it a far cry from the catty bombshells of Blood and Black Lace or the stereotypical lipstick lesbians of Torso, but its endearing attitude towards its cadre of porn artists makes Knife+Heart one of the more robust sex-positive movies of the horror genre.
As a love letter to a cinematic wave of films that were (and are) often dismissed as style devoid of substance, Knife+Heart triumphs in both story and genre evolution. By leaning into the innate voyeurism of film itself and translating every aspect of it into giallo structure, Gonzalez presents the medium at its most dynamic. In the same sense that Argento broke with conventions in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (and put a genre on the map as a result), so too does Gonzalez with a well-established type of Euro-slasher. We should all clap our black leather gloves in praise.
Anya Stanley (@BookishPlinko) is a horror-centric columnist and film critic. Her work can be seen in Fangoria Magazine, Rue Morgue, Dread Central and Birth.Movies.Death as well as her website anyawrites.com.