MUBI Review


A thrilling pseudo-pornographic crime giallo

Max Redmond Smith on Yann Gonzales’s ‘Knife + Heart‘ (2018)

If film scholar Luara Kipnis argues that pornography is a fantasy populated by characters, Yann Gonzalez’ film Knife + Heart retorts that so is its other. Inasmuch, Knife + Heart extends the well-known adage, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players” and says, all the world’s a bed, and all the people merely lovers.

Perhaps a primary contributor to the unique nanar (so bad that it’s good) quality of pornographic texts is their stock narratives and the melodramatic performativity of the actors. As opposed to the non-pornographic fiction film, the pornographic text does not manage to persuade the spectator to suspend their disbelief totally (of course, the non-pornographic text never fully achieves this either). The believability of the portrayed sexual act and its expression are indulged in by the spectator, but often little else is entertained, i.e. plot, and dialogue. Gonzalez’ Knife + Heart (2018) — a thrilling French pseudo-pornographic crime Giallo — resolves the otherwise prevalent disbelief-suspension deficit by disregarding the concept of bracketed fantasies, instead of celebrating a boundless and borderless landscape of gratification. This resolve creates a tonally pornographic film that redesigns the architecture of the non-pornographic text.

To achieve this, Knife + Heart inseminates the sexually sanitised actuality with fantasy: delegation to fantasy alone is dangerous; fantasy becomes a jail imprisoning pleasures that oft belong in the experienced sphere, not the imagined one. These are culturally denied pleasures that must be reclaimed: contemporary sexual conservatism must be abolished. This insemination is more productive, direct, and provocative than a simple coalescence, think Knife + Heart not Knife & Heart [sic] or think Sergei Eisenstein’s A+B=C not AB.

Primarily, Knife + Heart immerses into its most ambitious sexual and narrative fantasies when its two seemingly different, but ultimately congruous, narratives meet. This is largely because the conflation of the two resolves the deficits apparent in both. Anne Parèze (performed with tenderness and pained hunger by Vanessa Paradis) is a heartbroken director and producer of third-rate gay pornography in the summer of Paris, 1979. As a masked murderer targets her cast and crew, Anne eagerly continues to work on her most ambitious film to date, and obsessively investigate the string of murders. As these two plots and their different stylistic expressions unravel (one a thrilling Giallo, the other a gauche “porno”), they inform each other in a titillating union, they arouse Knife + Heart to grow, and for the audience to lose themselves and their inhibitions.

The amalgam of both plots and their approach to style, reveals the narrative similarities in both pornographic and non-pornographic texts, that both work toward a climax, are broken up with sexual numbers (Williams again), and both serve to manipulate a physical spectatorial response. Opposed to a patina of narrow, palatable, and conformative pleasures, Knife + Heart unapologetically serves a sexual smorgasbord to its spectators (i.e., phallic daggers, mutilated lovers, trans and non-binary sexualities) that embraces the maligned pornographic, and thus elicits a refreshing cinematic tumescence; an arousal that the audience can attend to however they please, and at their own discretion — succinctly put, a buffet of possibility.

In Knife + Heart, the conflation of both aforementioned narratives challenges the high art / low art divide that frequently maligns pornography to the margins. Anne often re-enacts and re-imagines situations that she has experienced into a pornographic context; her interrogation with the French police over the death of some of her crew becomes a gauche sexual interrogation between the remainder of her crew in her new film. The distance between her lived experience and her new film draw increasingly close, and the spectator soon realises that it is often expression or performance that changes the situation. Performativity (i.e., a social/cultural role such as a police official) and narrative can be as melodramatic, camp, flamboyant and logically ludicrous as it is in pornography in extra-filmic life — a realisation that reinforces the neo-adage that prefaces this essay asserts, “all the world’s a bed, and all the people merely lovers”. Despite this aforementioned power play between high and low, neither is brought up, nor down, but rather Knife + Heart demonstrates a successful and happy union of the two, and ultimately facilitates prosperous licentiousness between two separate cultures that are, in reality, fundamentally linked industrially, technically, and sometimes spectatorially.

The only place that the plot reaches any kind of conclusion, is in the theatre-space in one of the film’s final scenes. In this final sequence Knife + Heart highlights cinema and the theatre space as the arena in which our most prurient, lurid, and ambitious fantasies can become realised. In this respect, the film bears strong resemblances to Dario Argento’s seminal giallos (and the slasher-genre in general); avant-garde cinema and pornography such as Bijou (1972), Blow Job (1963), and Pink Narcissus (1973). The theatre scene itself too, as detailed and illustrated in Samuel Delany’s memoir, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999) and Glowing Eyes (2002). These texts, including Knife + Heart, demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between pornographic and non-pornographic texts throughout history and highlight the power in deconstructing boundaries and hierarchies.

To realise this power, Gonzalez implores the spectator to submit to the nanar “porno” narratives, to the avant-garde formalism of the dream sequences, to the wild acting of the cast, and even the diegetic play acting of certain characters at given moments. The spectator should lose them-self, become under the power of someone other than their-self, submit for maximum pleasure, realise that the margin does not nor need not exist and that more often than not, the most orgasmic experiences are a collaborative creation.

You can watch Knife + Heart on the Eyelet streaming platform below.

Max Redmond Smith

By Max Redmond Smith

Max Redmond Smith is a scholar and freelance writer based in London. A graduate of Film Studies (BA) from King’s College London, Max is interested in carnal cinema, sonic studies, porn studies, and sexual dissidence.