Yann Gonzalez’s Knife+Heart arrives at a time when contemporary genre cinema is reckoning with itself. In the last ten years, a number of filmmakers, particularly in Francophone Europe, has produced and directed relatively high-profile films occupying a genre that has come to be known as neo-giallo. A definition for neo-giallo borders on impossible, save perhaps a film that retroactively occupies the European thriller genre of giallo, which peaked in popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in doing so becomes a film made self-consciously, with an awareness of the genre’s conventions and thus a postmodern relationship to the material. At first glance, Gonzalez’s film certainly qualifies as such, extrapolating certain elements of giallo to an extent where it almost becomes necessary to understand the pedigree that haunts the genre as a whole. The film is not by necessity a deconstruction, but rather an earnest entry into the genre that appears to the contemporary viewer as fiction in a kind of “apparent retrograde,” looking back on the past.
Writing in 2015, Rachael Nisbet established twenty-first century neo-giallo as a phenomenon not exclusive to Europe, identifying films from Australia to Canada to Chile made since 2007, though the genre only began to gain international prestige with Amer (2009) by the writer-director duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Neo-giallo of the last fifteen years also forms part of a larger body of “retrograde” genre cinema in both Europe and North America, with works from the latter continent producing modern simulacra of 1980s horror films. For a film to compel a viewer to immediately recognize and acknowledge a film’s textual origins—and to make that acknowledgement part of the connective tissue of the viewing experience—is what Michael Baxandall understood as the “historical interpretation of pictures,” meaning that any cultural object represents the deposit of multiple social relationships, which he described in Patterns of Intention (1985). Jacques Derrida proposed a similar model in Spectres of Marx (1993), wherein any cultural object represents a “culmination” of past events, and is thus figuratively “haunted” by them. Neo-giallo is a twofold deposit in that it deliberately refers to the past—through homage, emulation, imitation, and so on—and in that its past event, giallo, is also a deposit of a complex relationship. Just as the classic gialli—such as Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) or Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark (1972)—function as a collective index of a time and place with specific aesthetics, target demographics, and modes of exhibition and reception in mind, Knife+Heart functions as an object that is arguably as much an amplification of giallo’s tropes as it is a giallo itself.
With that in mind, Knife+Heart is as much a film about filmmaking as it is a genre work. Anne (Vanessa Paradis) is a director and producer of pornographic films, with collaborators in editor and former partner Loïs (Kate Moran), cameraman François (writer-director Bertrand Mandico), and actor Archibald (Nicolas Maury). One by one, their young performers are killed by a masked figure, whose motive may have something to do with one of Anne’s previous productions. The film features a number of black-and-white sequences that at first register as dreams had by Anne, but gradually suggest something from the past that haunts the body of the film. Gonzalez works in what one would have called in archaic Italian the maniera (manner, way, or style) of a giallo film, comparable to Mikel Koven’s notion in La Dolce Morte (2006) of the variations of giallo as films made in the different filoni (“veins”) of a singular genre: the plot is largely immaterial—its mystery solved, like most gialli from midcentury, more through intuition or coincidence than through detective work—and abides by many conventions of the genre, both narrative (obsessive love, jealousy, sex, bloody murder, red herrings) and tactile (cosmopolitan lifestyles, disturbing dreams, the use of flashback as a mnemonic device, pseudoscience, a hint of the fantastique or supernatural). While Knife+Heart is perhaps not so concerned with developing a narrative that makes sense, neither were any of the gialli that precede it. The original films were ephemeral works, and not necessarily meant to be watched multiple times and scrutinized in film writing.
Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last year, the Anglophone reception of Knife+Heart has focused heavily on reductive comparisons to thrillers by Brian de Palma and to William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), initiated presumably by the film’s showcasing of LGBTQ characters. Critics’ dissatisfaction, however, often betrays a misunderstanding of the film’s iconographic origins, stating that it relies on camp, kitsch, and even parody for its effect. If one must compare it to another film in the canon, Knife+Heart arguably has more in common with Luigi Bazzoni’s The Fifth Cord (1971) in that the killer’s motivation is bound to an irreconcilable matter of the heart, the narrative unfolds in part due to the protagonist’s addiction, and the de facto murder investigation indirectly reveals its setting’s socioeconomic strata. These are all elements that Knife+Heart accentuates.
The film immediately distinguishes itself relative to the giallo canon in that nearly all of the characters come from the LGBTQ population, and in its inversion of the genre’s gender roles, the most common scenario being women as the victims of a killer or otherwise being watched, surveilled, or photographed by men (though this is predicated on the popular notion that giallo places men exclusively in the roles of killers and women in the roles of victims, which was not always the case). While at first glance this stands in contrast to the genre’s landscape, greater scrutiny of the wider corpus of giallo reveals that marginalized communities—not limited to but especially LGBTQ—have formed part of that landscape since at least the 1960s, and that the genre has always been one willing to invert itself. In Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), the private investigator Arrosio, an out homosexual, is able to extract information through charisma alone, and as Maitland McDonagh observed in the essential Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds (1991), the lead heteronormative couple Roberto and Nina are depicted as somewhat gender-neutral physically and physiognomically, with no outstanding masculine and feminine features to either person. A closeted gay character’s attempts to conceal his sexual identity in The Fifth Cord ultimately provides the solution to that film’s murder mystery. Mario Caiano’s Eye in the Labyrinth (1972) features a transgender woman character, Corinne, played by German pornographic actor Peter Kranz. A scene where a man watches her remove her bikini top on a beach falls in line with the exploitative nature of giallo yet it also illustrates the conceit of the genre’s original intended viewership, as a predominantly straight male audience in the early 1970s would have likely expected to see female nudity in such a feature.
Further, Emilio Miraglia’s The Red Queen Kills Seven Times and Silvio Amadio’s Smile Before Death (both 1972) invert the common giallo trope of men photographing women. Early scenes in the former depict Barbara Bouchet working as a fashion photographer in an industry typically populated by men, while the latter contains a sequence that features as much footage of Rosalba Neri operating her camera as it does of Jenny Tamburi modeling for her. Similar to Caiano’s film, Smile Before Death complicates the straight male viewer’s attention in how he sees images of nude women by framing them ostensibly from the point view of another woman.
Yet moments such these were relatively rare in that time and perhaps treated as curiosities, exceptions to the general narrative codes set for gialli. What existed on the periphery during the apex of giallo’s popularity, however, is brought to the fore in Knife+Heart. Rather than a mere inversion of tropes, the film extrapolates what has always existed in the genre’s landscape. In a scene early in the film where Anne, Archibald, and their cameraman François reconnect with performer Misia (Thibault Servière) at a bar, Gonzalez inserts a close-up shot of François’s face staring at his assistant and partner Rabah (Jules Ritmanic) and then turning to stare at Misia. While the shot recalls similar ones in numerous gialli meant to suggest a character as the possible killer, the scene functions as a critique of sorts of a recurring motif in giallo at large. That François is the cameraman for Anne’s productions adds an additional dimension to scenes where the characters film pornography: women watch and direct men, and men photograph men.
Gonzalez establishes Anne, François, and Loïs as characters who routinely shift between looking and filming—and by extension, their immediate reality and the film worlds they create—so often that the two collapse together and occasionally become a source of humor. François spends more screen time with his face behind a camera than not and when the viewer sees the world from his point of view it is through the camera’s viewfinder. After the film’s first murder occurs and Anne is questioned by the police, she incorporates both events into her new film, titled Le tueur homo (translated as “Homocidal”). A scene where Loïs edits a scene for that film reveals her laughing at the artifice of a split-screen shot of Archibald and Nans (Khaled Alouach) ejaculating while talking to each other on the phone, even while it echoes an earlier exchange between herself and Anne. It is, ultimately, the conflation of true events with fiction—on the part of both Anne and the killer—that lands the characters in danger.
Like the most celebrated films of the genre, Knife+Heart exploits both modern and archaic iconography, or what Koven called the genre’s ambivalence for modernity. At one point the film portrays a preview for a Luddite-themed porno featuring characters who wish to escape modern technology and enter the past, while at other points Loïs attends a night club called The Future. A more prevalent instance of its ambivalence is the portrayal of death by stabbing. The film’s opening sequence intercuts the murder of a young actor, Karl (Bastien Waultier), with footage from a pornographic film in which he performs being spliced together by Loïs in an editing room. He follows a masked figure out of a night club and into a hotel room. The figure strips him, ties him to a bed, produces a dildo that conceals a switchblade, and stabs him to death. The immediate parallel with past associations between a phallus and stabbing weapon in gialli is obvious: firearms are almost never the weapon of choice for the giallo killer, and the stabbing site will often be genitalia, as in Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange? (1972). But by intercutting the sequence with Loïs assembling the pornographic footage before the viewer, Gonzalez explicates the sexual connotations of a stabbing—being the disparity between one’s sexual partner and the mental image one has of and projects onto that partner. It’s also perhaps not a coincidence, then, that the killer’s mask bears a strong resemblance to one worn in BDSM roleplay, and thus associates the power dynamics of sex with those of violence. The film eventually reveals that the killer’s propensity for stabbing men becomes a figurative act, not solely of having sex with men but of a return to an event from the past.
By extrapolating the LGBTQ elements of its predecessors, Knife+Heart also addresses, by proxy, the genre’s depiction of socioeconomic class. The portrayal of the upper class in gialli was routinely conveyed by designer clothing, sports cars, and modern decor (a number of Rome’s luxury houses and apartments were reused for several productions throughout the 1970s), but perhaps most famously by the recurring appearance of J&B whiskey, which to many Europeans throughout midcentury signified a cosmopolitan, jet-setting lifestyle. The films’ depictions of wealth were often at odds with their target audience, which were primarily working class men who would not have had televisions or even telephones in their homes. Knife+Heart forgoes any portrayal of wealth and accentuates a straightforward, unglamorous working class world: Anne’s efforts to win Loïs back are often set against the backdrop of excessive drinking and falling asleep at the bar, she visits worksites to recruit “common people” as performers, and her investigation into the mens’ murders leads her to a remote village where she meets Cathy (Romane Bohringer), who immediately admires Anne’s urbane and Parisian—and by implication upper class—persona. Gonzalez will often imply economic division visually, by dwarfing characters in wide shots vis-à-vis gravel pits, derelict building facades, and unnaturally empty streets. In that regard, the film perhaps owes something to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, whose images in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Fifth Cord—as Matt Wall observed in 2014—captured the “other” Italy of dilapidated buildings, public housing, and spaces occupied by Italians left behind by the country’s midcentury economic boom, which stands in contrast to giallo’s more-common portrayals of the bourgeois world of baroque estates and psychiatrists’ offices.
It would make sense, then, that Gonzalez would use a template of exploitation cinema to accentuate the plight of Europeans who have been marginalized both by non-conforming sexual identity and lower economic class, which more often than not overlap. This is not unlike the same phenomenon that sociologist Joshua Gamson describes in Freaks Talk Back (1998), which argues that the emergence of “trashy” talk shows in the mid-1990s ostensibly meant to be seen by the “lower” classes—rather than “legitimate” talk shows meant to be seen by the middle—indirectly provided a platform for non-conforming identities including LGBTQ, despite that platform being inherently exploitative.
Through it all, the viewer sees Loïs editing the characters’ own exploitation film together, routinely drawing one’s attention to the artifice onscreen and to the characters’ own conflation of what is real and what is fake, the past as one in the present recalls it and the past as it was. The viewer of neo-giallo is charged with making a similar conflation. Ultimately one must commit to a postmodern relationship in seeing Knife+Heart, since like all neo-gialli it exists outside of time, unmistakably modern but also inseparable from the genre’s vestigial matter.