Someone is killing the cast and crew around the production of a gay French porno in “Knife + Heart,” which provides an inspired opportunity to set an erotic thriller within the milieu of vintage Parisian blue movies. In the hands of gifted French director Yann Gonzalez, who leaps from Critics’ Week to the official competition with this hyper-stylized follow-up to “You and the Night,” an environment that might have once given exploitation helmers the excuse to stage some red-blooded voyeurism (à la “Body Double” or “Crimes of Passion”) instead serves as a backdrop for queer empowerment in what should be one of the hottest tickets for gay audiences this year.
Picture “Cruising” as directed by Brian De Palma, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from this frisky parody-homage, which is equal parts kinky and kitsch, rendered with the kind of meticulous attention to lighting, composition, and sound (including a reunion with M83, who also scored Gonzalez’s first film) that all but guarantees a cult following. The title hints at extreme passions of both the romantic and homicidal variety brought to a boil over the summer of 1979 — although frankly, a knife in the heart is perhaps the most pleasant way to go for the victims of a serial killer who alternately employs a switchblade dildo and a deep-throat ramrod.
While the murders are graphic, the sexuality isn’t, as Gonzalez presents an almost playful idea of what passed for gay porn at the time. In preparing the project, he delved deep into his research, coming upon the story of a female director who, in addition to being a notorious tyrant on set, nursed a powerful attraction to the editor with whom she worked. This presents yet another unique situation for Gonzalez, who takes the chance to stage a tragic lesbian love story in this otherwise all-male underworld.
With her anime-big eyes and squeaky-balloon voice, gap-toothed pixie Vanessa Paradis may not be the obvious choice to play aspiring porn auteur Anne Pareze, but she’s an icon in her own right, serving as a wonderfully unconventional matriarchal figure for this misfit band of lost children — a mix of “real” men she spots at construction sites and flamboyant types recruited at the gay bars she frequents. Oddly enough, she never asks to see anyone’s genitalia, which is just as well, because there’s no evidence that she ever shows their equipment in her films. She’s strictly a soft-core auteur, blending the corniest of exposition with the kind of quasi-symbolic imagery one might expect to find in a student film — including a burning cabin that plays a central role in the murderer’s intentions.
This is a rare case of a film where the movie-within-the-movie scenes appear less impressionistic than the footage that surrounds them, a balance established from the opening scene, in which Anne’s lover Loïs (Kate Moran) assembles a 16mm forest encounter on a flatbed editor — one of those Tom of Finland-style scenarios where two men get familiar in the woods while a third looks on from behind the bushes.
Cut, shoot, mix — the very language of cinema is brutal, and Gonzalez taps into that energy via an elaborate montage, alternating between Loïs’ work and the killer’s first murder. Seen only in an intimidating leather fetish mask, the mysterious villain lurks in the corner of a gay sex club (more convincing than the one James Franco staged for “Interior. Leather Bar.”) and lures the ringlet-haired twink whose scene Loïs is working on to a room where the BDSM play takes a violent turn.
The trouble here — and with every attack that follows — is the complete lack of suspense. Gonzalez has mastered the art of creating atmosphere and tone, but not tension, and the movie feels meandering and slow at times, since audiences are not invested in anyone’s survival. Even Anne, who is devastated by the loss, is dealing with plenty of other distractions, and in her drive to make something of substance (this artistic desire is expressed but never adequately conveyed), she starts to incorporate details of the police investigation into her next project, “Homocidal.”
Compared with the relatively intellectual “You and the Night,” in which attendees at an orgy are given to long philosophical discourses explaining their sex drives, “Knife + Heart” feels like a far more conventional genre effort, and yet, it’s still padded with monologues and what feel like fantasy sequences — as in a strange scene in which Anne organizes a picnic for the entire troupe, which has by now expanded to include trans performers (an essential component of Gonzalez’s queer worldview) and an endearing if grotesque-looking fluffer (Pierre Pirol) known as Bouche d’Or, or the “Mouth of Gold,” who’s so delighted to be of service that he performs his job for free.
As the murders mount and the police prove ineffectual, Anne sets a trap for the killer, arranging a casting call for her next film that, had she only given it a moment’s thought, would obviously entail sacrificing several more of her team. When the explanation of the murderer’s motives finally arrives, it’s deeply unsatisfying (more interesting would be someone from within Anne’s entourage) but also a relief that Gonzalez has subverted the homophobic trope of branding gay characters as freaks — here, it is the self-hating character who is treated as the outsider.
Gnarly as it can be at times, “Knife + Heart” is above all an unabashedly queer, affectionately comedic look at the pursuit of art in the unlikeliest of places. It stands to reason, then, that the climax should occur at the world premiere of “Homocidal,” where Anne is greeted by a fan who claims to have seen all of her films. Compared with the ridiculous ending of last year’s “The Disaster Artist,” it’s a far more effective way of conveying that even work that is publicly derided has its ardent followers.