“Knife + Heart” and the Thin Line Between Desire and Destruction

“Beauty is something that burns your hand when you touch it”
— Yukio Mishima

Paris, 1979. Anne Pareze — a producer and director of gay porn films — is mentally coming undone after a recent split with her editor and girlfriend Loïs. At the same time, a mysterious slasher masked in leather is slaughtering gay men one by one, all of whom happen to be members of Anne’s recurring ensemble of performers. Bizarrely inspired by these tragedies, she decides to base her next great smut film on the killings, even as they continue.

While most often drawing comparisons to William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), a killer thriller similarly set in a world of hardcore gay leather sex, Knife+Heart (2018) –– or in its original French, Un couteau dans le cœur, literally ‘A Knife in the Heart’ –– is far less procedural, being at its core a romantic drama. The initial spark for the film, the love between Anne and Loïs is based on that between real porn producer Anne-Marie Tensi and her editor Loïs Koenigswerther: “the idea of love going through the images. Like, a woman making a film and, believing with her [whole] heart that she could seduce again this other woman with just cinema, with her images.”

While the murders and raunchy smut are the flashier elements of the film that make it easy to pitch to an audience, the core of the story is a sincere meditation on desire. While stopping the killer and uncovering the mystery behind his motives moves the narrative forward, they are peripheral to the actual substance of the film which, in line with filmmaker Yann Gonzalez’s trademark style, weaves romantic queer poems out of queer eroticism and obscenity.

Knife+Heart feels like the rare work of horror not meant to scare you with gut-churning gore but instead is driven to haunt you. There is no chase. Almost every kill is sudden and without warning. To reference its title, its violence is meant to feel like a piercing blade run through your chest with each beautiful life destroyed.

Part of this exists in the staggering amount of texture Gonzalez and his actors give to the world of porn. The simplest point of comparison would be Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997), another film centered on a troupe of pornographers set against the medium’s Golden Age. I worked production on porn sets on and off for most of the first half of my twenties, and while it was firmly in the digital era, I’ve seen no better depiction of that world I’ve known than in Knife+Heart. While acknowledging much of the absurdity and hostilities that can exist in any work environment, the film depicts Anne’s ensemble as a breathing community rather than an assortment of well-worn horror archetypes. We see them work and gossip and make themselves vulnerable for the sake of their desires. And when they die, we see them grieved by lovers, colleagues, and friends.

As someone who has edited art films as well as pornography, editing porn was always a lot simpler. At least where I worked, I was not really being asked to craft anything. The raw materials you’ve been given are a few repetitive actions done at length with slight variations being made throughout. You cut out what complicates the audience’s desire. Excise that which might distance them from the hypnotic rhythm of their fantasy.

Pornography’s purpose is most often to depict an uncomplicated consummation of desire. Buttholes are miraculously pre-lubed. Transgression of social taboo has no consequence. There is no war, no disease, no strife in a utopia where pleasure is god. No mortal problem that can’t be solved by filling a wet hole.

This is in conversation with the rest of Gonzalez’s oeuvre, which has a similar fixation on making dreamy romantic reveries through fetish, debauchery, and other modes of desire often seen as obscene and grotesque. It makes the implied utopia of pornography textual and poetic. Gonzalez’s first feature You and the Night (2013) — French: Les Rencontres d’après minuit, literally ’Encounters After Midnight’ — is the story of a mysterious throuple throwing a pansexual orgy, drawing together several strangers into a romantic night where they share not only of each other’s bodies but their histories. In Islands (2017), his short that directly preceded, we are led through a series of surreal sexual vignettes in one night. But if Gonzalez’s canvas is the wet dreamscape, Knife+Heart is his first film to depict desire as capable of being a nightmare as well.

In her essay “Eros the Bittersweet,” Anne Carson notes that the greek word “Eros” implies a love derived from a lack. Eros makes us prone. When it appears before us, be it manifested in flesh or on film, it lays us bare and fills us with a force that can overwhelm us. We hope it changes us for good, or otherwise erases what we dislike in ourselves. But often it can do the very opposite, breaking us down to baser impulses and leading us to lose reason. It leads us to painful obsession and ugly desperation, rendering us eager for anything to ease our suffering from it.

Eros is hunger. It is capable of becoming a destructive force.

When we first meet Anne, it is moments after the film’s opening kill, running terrified down a dark empty street. She arrives at a phone booth and calls Loïs, frantically scared and unsure of where she is, begging for the familiarity of her once-lover’s comfort. While she offers her some care, Loïs is boundaried in her refusal to rekindle their romance or suffer Anne’s drunken episodes and petulant rages. From the onset, Anne is a protagonist for whom we are not meant to feel sympathy, but a frustrating empathy. With her petulant rages and her constant drinking, the problems of her life are largely of her own making. She is us at our messiest.

Anne acts out desperately, sometimes perpetrating violence of her own. She is fragile and child-like, but also dangerous and angry. It’s an emotional story grounded in the perspective of a character who is erratic and cruel.

The killer’s true role in the film is to be a reflection of Anne’s caustic all-consuming desire with each kill, with her even playing the one behind the mask in her true crime porno. For most of the film, our protagonist and our predator are each driven by an intoxicating amour fou, desire and destruction closely entwined.The film feels like a ghost story, with Guy Favre being a phantom in all but the literal sense.

What feels like one of the film’s most emotionally devastating moment comes not from the killings, but from Anne when she sexually assaults Loïs as the killer watches on. Only moments after Loïs had nearly rekindled their romance, Anne’s destroyed it irrevocably in a drunken stupor. What was once love has been corrupted by a terrifying possessiveness.

Again, the disquieting empathy comes into play. Throughout the film, we have been encouraged to see that there is more to Anne than madness and rage. She has an earnest familial love for her crew and an appreciation for beauty and the erotic. Despite her exploitation of the circumstances for creative inspiration, she is desperate to solve the killings as the police predictably offer her vulnerable community no help. We’re never meant to side with her, but we are driven to try and understand her warped perspective.

Knife+Heart is a film full of gaze but not in the oft-misused Mulveyian sense that would draw criticism. It’s full of people looking at each other. The eyes are the primary means by which we direct desire.

In a prior piece of writing I did on Knife+Heart, I stated

“Both Knife+Heart’s male characters and its camera leer at men’s bodies with desire that borders on obsessive. Anne could be read as an outsider in this regard — she’s not a man and has no sexual interest in men — but she appreciates the meeting of their bodies (and the squirting and writhings that result from it) as pure art. But her failed relationship with Loïs and her limerent desire for her is meant to form an alternative queer parallel to the killer’s relationship with his prey. Both long to feel beautiful and in trying to contain and control someone else’s beauty, they lash out and harm them in the process.”

As Gonzalez was doing research to better understand the world of French gay porn in the late 1970s, he discovered something long thought unearthed: Equation to an Unknown (1980) a believed-to-be lost masterpiece of arthouse smut. Gonzalez called it “The most melancholic porn film I’ve ever seen.”

Earlier this year, Equation to an Unknown and Knife+Heart were shown together as a double feature at Los Angeles’ historic repertory theater, The New Beverly Cinema (owned by filmmaker Quentin Tarantino since 2007). True to Gonzalez’s statement, the film is awash with a languorous beauty. A cadre of rugby players wander through Paris, guided from one cock-filled milieu to the next by a dreary lust. Lighting is dim and natural. Money-shots border on claustrophobic in their framing. It’s unclear whether what we are seeing are the characters’ fantasies or realities as denim-clad twinks ride through the night together on a motorbike before fellating each other on the same hot rod.

I was enchanted and amazed by the film. I thoroughly enjoyed my time working as a pornographer and think back on it fondly, but I’d never gotten to make anything as complex in its expression of erotic beauty. It felt like the kind of porn I’d always wished I’d gotten to edit. The kind of art I’ve always hoped to see more of.

Less pleasant was the reaction of the audience I watched it with, often breaking out into uncomfortable laughter and other loud, disquieted reactions. One woman sitting behind me audibly said “oh dear” in shock in a tranquil scene where one of the men calmly pisses on another and walks away. What did you expect when you paid to come see a double featuresmut and a film about making smut (in a former porno theater no less)? It belies a larger issue I have with repertory film audiences, who often seem unable to meaningfully engage with art which makes them uncomfortable, instead treating it as some “so bad it’s good” curio.

As much as I wanted to see Knife+Heart on 35mm, I left before the second half of the double feature. I couldn’t bear to share a film that means so much to me as a queer pervert and a pornographer with an audience so clearly uneasy with erotic material. The smut of that film and the baldfaced desire it expresses are not mere flourishes, but inextricable from the film’s storytelling. If they couldn’t appreciate porn as art, I couldn’t trust they’d see a slasher set in the world of its production as anything but a cheap thrill.

The film’s final scene takes place in a serene otherworldly white room, full of men fucking. Heaven on earth is a liminal space. It’s an orgy. Somewhere where eros can be expressed freely and uncomplicated by possessiveness or expectations. It’s a moment where nobody needs you but everybody here wants you, channeling the clattering din of human desire into a swooning symphony. It’s one of those scenes that never ceases to bring a tear to my eye.

Horror Is So Gay is a series on queer and trans horror edited by Autostraddle Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya running throughout October.

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Chingy Nea

Chingy Nea is a writer, filmmaker, and critically acclaimed ex-girlfriend based out of Los Angeles and Oakland

Chingy has written 5 articles for us.

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