Matt Rogerson takes a look at the latest giallo-flavored thriller from France.
It seems the giallo is undergoing something of a resurgence. The oh-so-Italian genre, a lurid mix of psychological horror, crime thriller, melodrama and sexploitation, was one of Italian cinema’s biggest outputs in the 1960s and 70s, but sadly faded from prominence in the decades that followed.
In 2009, after many years in the wilderness, something quite significant to the genre happened (no, I am NOT talking about Dario Argento’s ‘Giallo’ starring Adrian Brody. I’m not saying that film was a turkey but the US just suspended its participation in the F-35 fighter program). Amer, released in September that year, was the brainchild of French directorial duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. The experimental film utilized a dizzying mix of giallo tropes and created something artistic and postmodern. The film was a modest success, a big hit with fans of the genre who hadn’t had a fix in a while (I’m not saying they’d gone cold turkey, but your mom and dad were serving them up on sandwiches 3 days after thanksgiving), and its distinctive aesthetic and surrealist style earned it plaudits amongst genre critics.
Cattet and Forzani have returned to this neo-giallo formula on two occasions since Amer. Their next film, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013) presents a very familiar set-up (a man searching for his missing wife descends into a web of deceit and murder), but once again the pair’s penchant for splashes of surrealism and narrative cul-de-sacs turned their homage into something quite singular. 2017’s Let The Corpses Tan mixes the giallo with the poliziotteschi and the spaghetti western, and its somewhat more linear plot allows the pair to experiment even more wildly visually, their framing and editing drawing favourable comparisons to Quentin Tarantino.
Cattet and Forzani are not alone in championing the neo-giallo. They have since been joined by Guillem Morales (Julia’s Eyes, 2010), Christopher Robin and François Gaillard (Black Aria, 2010), Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio, 2012), Luciano Onetti (Francesca, 2015), Ezequiel Endelman and Leandro Montejano (Crystal Eyes, 2018) and a whole host of others.
Knife + Heart (Un couteau dans le cœur), the 2018 film from Yann Gonzalez that was selected to compete for Palme d'Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, is the latest ode to the lurid yellow thrillers from decades gone by. Vanessa Paradis is Anne, a film producer facing an existential crisis due to a failed relationship with editor Lois (Kate Moran). As she tries to keep it together at work and at home, her colleagues are murdered one by one. A leather-clad, masked (and be-wigged) serial killer with a penchant for murder and foul play.
So begins a violent erotic thriller steeped in shadows, delighting in dream-logic and marvelling in macabre melodrama. Fans of the classic gialli of genre king Dario Argento (or even the near-giallo thrillers of Brian De Palma) will recognise the film’s style, its wonderfully gaudy color palette and its unflinching violence, while connoisseurs of some of giallo’s lesser known masters (such as Luciano Ercoli) will love the fantastic sense of humour that runs throughout its generous 1hr 50min run time.
One of Knife + Heart’s most satisfying tropes is its use of sexploitation. Gonzalez is clearly well aware of the ‘rules’ of giallo, and here presents us lots of flesh and erotica as his film is set in and around a porn studio. The difference? It is a 1970s gay porn studio, meaning it is mostly the men who have their flesh on show throughout the film. We are treated to various orgiastic scenes, something which manages to be both hilarious (for those of us familiar enough with the genre expectations to know when they are being subverted) and a breath of fresh air for the underrepresented amongst us. It is about time the movie world got more comfortable with showing queer life in a matter-of-fact way, in admitting that there is more to life than cisheteronormative life, and this melodramatic tale of murder in the French 1970s gay porn industry is exactly that. There are no displays of toxic masculinity, gay sex is not a marginalised fetish, nor is it ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. Instead, we see people going about their daily business, as they would in any other industry. The film works because it shows that the formula of murders in a self-contained workplace is transferable, that queer life can exist in ‘straight’ cinema without merely turning it into a gimmick (although there are some fantastic tongue-in-cheek film titles, including Anal Fury V and Homo-cidal, and the killer’s weapon of choice is of course a knife-cum-dildo).
As the bodies begin to pile up, Anne turns to the cops. She soon finds out they aren’t interested in helping someone in her seedy profession, and that her colleagues and career might well be stuffed (that’s four! Four gratuitous, pointless turkey jokes!). Frustrated, refusing to succumb to impotence, she becomes the classic giallo amateur sleuth, investigating the murders and trying to usurp and unmask the killer. Anne also begins to produce a new porn film, inspired by the murders. In this, we have another wonderful genre trope as art imitates life, something Argento explored in his classic Tenebrae, and Wes Craven later used to create 90s meta-horror classics New Nightmare and Scream.
The cast are fantastic, particularly Paradis, who plays the multiple crises of Anne so very straight throughout, giving a performance that would be just as at home in more ‘serious’ drama as it is here. Moran’s Loïs is even-tempered and nurturing - she does love Anne, but knows her estranged lover must be taught a lesson in emotional maturity before their relationship can possibly resume. The menfolk are, for the most part, the eye candy, given relatively little to do except look pretty, get naked, and die. Once again, the subversion of tropes is on display, with the ‘ruination of beauty’ trope from Bavaesque gialli (which in turn became the ‘no sex’ rule of the slasher) flipped (or should that be turned ha ha).
The mise en scene is nothing short of perfect - director Gonzalez, cinematographer Simon Beaufils and composers M83 bring the 1970s gay nightlife into your living room in rich colour, swirling cameras and pulsating sounds, making the film a very immersive experience.
Knife + Heart is an absolute joy, and while some critics seem reluctant to give the film its dues, in my opinion it has just about everything: violence, sex, tension and comedy, knives and masks and bums and dildos. Fun for all the family.
The son of a VHS pirate, Matt Rogerson became a horror fan at a tender young age. A student of the genre, he is currently writing his first book (about Italian horror and the Vatican) and he believes horror cinema is in the middle of a new golden age.
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