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Knife + Heart is the film about murder in the French gay porn industry

Yann Gonzalez’s second directorial feature is a sleazy delight tinged with heartbreak and impending doom, that features a murderer with a dildo switchblade

It’s 1979, the French gay porn industry is in full flow, and a horny killer is on the loose. That’s the inviting premise of Yann Gonzalez’s Knife + Heart, a giallo murder-mystery set in the world of guy-on-guy erotica. With echoes of Brian De Palma’s genre flourishes (split-screen splatters and pervy POVs), the dream logic of an Andrzej Zulawski nightmare, and affectionate nods to pre-internet jerk-off material, Gonzalez’s second directorial feature is a sleazy delight, albeit one tinged with heartbreak and impending doom.

In Gonzalez’s silky slasher, the murderer dresses like an X-rated Scooby Doo villain: disguised in leather fetish gear, the shadowy figure penetrates victims via a kinky weapon of choice – a dildo with a switchblade attached. But our focus is on Anne Pareze (Vanessa Paradis), a director whose latest efforts are titled Anal Fury and Homocidal. As the death toll of her young male talent rises, Anne springs into action: she turns into an amateur detective, of course, but then decides that the killings should be restaged in her films. To Anne, a Parisian pornographer with a distinct vision, it’s simply horny art mirroring real life.

When I meet Gonzalez, it’s the morning after his movie’s midnight screening at the London Film Festival. As you can imagine, Knife + Heart, with all its mischievous pleasures, is a story suited for after-hours viewing. It’s lovingly shot on 35mm, exuberantly scored by M83, and specifically designed to soak in anonymously in a big, dark room with strangers. That said, its world premiere was at Cannes, in Official Competition for the Palme d’Or, a festival where tuxedoed audiences tend not to be receptive to genre fare. “At Cannes, it was an outcast,” Gonzalez laughs. “Which is fine to me. It polarised a lot of people, but showing it at Cannes took the film out of its niche.”

To prepare for Knife + Heart, Gonzalez sought out rare French erotica from the 1970s. “Most of these gay pornos were kinda crappy, but the gems are incredible,” the director enthuses. “The sad thing is, most of them disappeared. The prints were destroyed and we can find no trace of them anymore. Maybe they weren’t good films, but they were documents of the underground life of gay people back then – the queer theatres and cruising spots in Paris.”

“Most of these gay pornos were kinda crappy, but the gems are incredible. The sad thing is, most of them disappeared. The prints were destroyed and we can find no trace of them anymore” – Yann Gonzalez

One of those gems, Gonzalez continues, is 1979’s Équation à un inconnu (in English, it’s A Question to an Unknown), the only ever movie by artist Dietrich de Velsa. “Not just a masterpiece of porn films, but a masterpiece of French cinema,” he says. “A guy is dreaming about making love with lots of other guys, but there’s a silence to it. There’s an orgy at the end where the soundtrack is sounds of water, like waves, and at the same time there’s a woman laughing like a witch. It’s like a curse on the gay community, like a premonition of Aids. It’s super-scary and incredible. I found a negative print and made a brand new 16mm print of it. I want this film to be discovered again.”

Knife + Heart, too, is set in 1979, but not as a reference to Équation à un inconnu or the oncoming Aids epidemic. The reason, Gonzalez tells me, is that he based the character of Anne on an actual porn producer, Anne-Marie Tensi. The film’s fictional Anne, like Tensi, juggles a romantic breakup with her editor Lois (Kate Moran) while managing a troupe of young men (including Nicolas Maury from Call My Agent! and Félix Maritaud from Sauvage). Elsewhere, as a talent scout, Anne approaches pretty boys on the street and offers “a special rate for your angel face”; in Nans (Khaled Alouach), a construction worker willing to go gay-for-pay, she lands “a fawn among wolves”.

“[Anne-Marie Tensi] was a very powerful businesswoman in her own underground way,” Gonzalez explains. “These films made a lot of money because there was no other way at the time to watch gay porn.” As Tensi died in 1994, Gonzalez met industry folk who knew her during her heyday. “Anne had to be glamorous and magical. This is why I chose Vanessa Paradis. She can go from a very nightmarish figure to something very kiddish and innocent. She can be super-angry and at other times like a child who’s lost in the middle of a love-drama.” 

Gonzalez specially screened the film for François About, the cinematographer of Équation à un inconnu. About’s ambition was to work with the avant-garde directors of the 70s and 80s, but he was rejected due to his connections with gay porn. As Gonzalez puts it, About was “cursed as a gay DoP”. In contrast, Knife + Heart noticeably depicts a more open community. “Luckily, times have changed,” the director says. “I’m not sure it’s a faithful reconstruction of the porn industry back then, but it’s an honest fantasy.

“I think most filmmakers take it too seriously. It’s only a film. You can’t change the world with a film. What you can change, sometimes, is the vision of somebody. Making a film is not serious. Of course, I take it seriously, but at the same time, I want the film to be filled with life. And life is full of fun. Life is full of stupid things and stupid jokes. To me, it’s a reflection of what you are, and what you’ve lived through, and what you go through. This film is a reflection of what I’ve kind of experienced.”

“It’s made for everyone. It’s a film about love, and love with no borders. The audience is made up of individuals, and I don’t care if they’re gay or straight” - Yann Gonzalez

After two features, Gonzalez has already established a visual aesthetic and a set of thematic concerns. His 2013 debut, You & the Night, was a hypersexual, hyper-stylised oddity, again scored by M83, and with a literally dick-swinging Eric Cantona as The Stud. But Gonzalez freely admits that Knife + Heart borrows from other movies, including the neon lighting of Claude Mulot 1986’s erotic thriller Le couteau sous la gorge (aka Knife to the Throat), a film he describes as “very straight, not even campy, but cool to watch”. Above all, Gonzalez’s favourite director is Brian De Palma, an auteur whose voyeuristic camera obsesses over the figures of beautiful blonde women.

“I tried to turn the straight, manly view of gender into something queer,” Gonzalez notes on his approach to horror. “It’s not conscious. It’s just that, like many queer people, I’m really fed up with straight totalitarianism. I wanted it to be natural that it’s almost 100 per cent queer characters in this film, and that after ten minutes you totally forget that they’re queer. You just embrace the story as a whole landscape.

“But I don’t want to separate the audience and put them in labels. It’s made for everyone. It’s a film about love, and love with no borders. The audience is made up of individuals, and I don’t care if they’re gay or straight.”

As for the music, Gonzalez knew that he could rely on M83, not least because the bandleader, Anthony Gonzalez, is his younger sibling. “For my brother, it was something really new and challenging,” the director says. “There were so many things he’d never done before, like making a soundtrack for a porn film – especially a gay porn film, because my brother is straight.

“The first step was hard because we couldn’t find the right tone. But after two weeks, they did the first track, for when the cross-dresser is stabbed in the countryside. Then the rest went in a very natural way. But there were so many new things for me to try, too, and for the crew, who were mostly young people. We were like a bunch of kids doing a film.”

“The only two things I don’t want to change are shooting on film, because I don’t like digital, and being romantic. Which are the same thing, actually.” - Yann Gonzalez

Before the interview ends, I mention Noah Baumbach’s documentary, De Palma. In the final moments, De Palma gloomily laments that filmmakers are artistically finished by the end of their 50s. “Yeah, I remember that bit perfectly,” Gonzalez sighs. “I’m a late bloomer. I’m 41. So yeah, I’m scared of the future, because it’s hard to make movies. If I had the courage, I’d make one film a year. But I’m going to speed up the frequency.”

Gonzalez’s next script, though, is only a vague idea that’s “blurry and maybe a fantasy film”. But it’ll be entirely different from Knife + Heart. “I think it’s more exciting to work with opposites. The only two things I don’t want to change are shooting on film, because I don’t like digital, and being romantic. Which are the same thing, actually.”

So if he’s an advocate for celluloid, how does he feel about the percentage of viewers who will experience Knife + Heart on their laptops? “30 years ago, crazy horror films were mainstream successes that sold lots of tickets,” the director says. “Argento’s films, in Italy, were huge in the 70s and 80s. I’m struggling against this VOD thing. My film was made on 35mm and 16mm. It’s meant to be on the big screen. Of course, if you’ve got no other way to see it, you should watch it on VOD – it’s better than on an iPhone. But to me, the real space for the film is the theatre screen.”

Knife + Heart is out in UK cinemas and on MUBI on July 5