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The real beauty of modern cinema is that just when you least expect it, something like Yann Gonzalez’s Knife + Heart emerges from the depths of the underground and demands your utmost attention. A cinematic statement that refuses to follow the expected, instead thriving to provide a completely unique twist on known conventions. It’s an approach that brings to mind auteurs such as Gaspar Noe and Peter Strickland. But once the smoke has cleared, are these cinematic statements capable of providing more than just a mere distraction from mainstream normality? Knife + Heart certainly fights for this belief and to a large extent, succeeds.
The movie follows Anne (Vanessa Paradis), an efficient porn director who is struggling to keep hold of whatever passion she has left. As she struggles to find a way to combat the heartache and addiction consuming her, she meets an enigmatic young man named Nans (Khaled Alouach) and everything changes.
From the early beginnings of Knife + Heart, we are thrust headfirst into what one could only describe as a sleazy, kaleidoscopic giallo nightmare. Think William Friedkin’s Cruising if it were shoved into a blender with Joel Schumacher’s 8MM and Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Have I got your attention now? I thought so.
When Karl (Bastien Waultier) follows a masked observer into the dark corners of an underground gay nightclub, everything becomes crystal clear. With a pumping soundtrack, grainy visuals that scream 70’s nostalgia and enough vibrancy to seduce Nicolas Winding Refn, we are treated to giallo-esque slasher vibes like no other in recent memory. The truth is, when Knife + Heart is good, it is really goddamn good.
The first forty minutes are pitch perfect from Gonzalez. The pacing has been carefully constructed, with each scene seamlessly merging with the next, never lingering too long. The soundtrack, which is a standout from M83, pulsates and brings to life the 70’s nostalgia vibe Gonzalez is clearly attempting to replicate.
The acting is near flawless with each performance and character offering something new and significantly different from the next. Paradis and Nicolas Maury (Call My Agent) steal the show, both nailing the tone of Knife + Heart perfectly. Maury’s character of Archibald provides numerous laughs but manages to remain compelling in more serious and heartfelt moments. Meanwhile, Paradis’ character of Anne is a leading woman who you can’t help but root for, even when she does some questionable and nasty things to test the love of those around her.
Even Knife + Heart’s gruesome moments are an absolute joy to behold, with Gonzalez showcasing just how good he can be at crafting memorable set pieces. One particular scene revolving around Thierry (Felix Maritaud) and our masked observer stands as one of my favourite moments in a horror movie in recent years.
After it’s phenomenal first forty minutes, Knife + Heart, unfortunately, takes a fall from grace for the rest of its run-time. Brilliance is still scattered throughout the final hour but it is overshadowed by surprisingly poor pacing, an uninteresting finale and a lack of vibrancy that made its opening passages so goddamn addictive. It’s a shame really but Knife + Heart may be the first movie in quite some time that falls victim to substance over style.
For the final hour, Gonzalez becomes too focused on delivering a somewhat cohesive narrative and disappointingly, discards Knife + Heart’s vibrant identity for a more serious tone which at times feels desperately out of place. The attention to substance may work for many a viewer but for myself, I yearned to see Gonzalez test the limits of his imagination and deliver a piece of cinema that stood out amongst the crowd.
Unfortunately, the finale of Knife + Heart just doesn’t work. Intrigue and mystery surrounded its first forty minutes with no real indicator of what is unravelling. Yet, by the mid-way mark, one starts to easily piece it all together and when the giallo steps into more serious territory, you should have already figured it out long before it’s end. The final moments also feel rushed and when the credits start to roll you don’t really feel anything.
At the beginning of this journey, I was completely invested in where Gonzalez wanted to take his audience but by its conclusion, it leaves you feeling surprisingly empty. That’s not to say the last hour is devoid of any great moments because it still has some eye-catching thrilling segments littered in there. Yet, overall, it is disappointing to see such a promising start fall victim to safe filmmaking.
Still, Knife + Heart is a cool little movie that provides, at its best, an engaging, unique visual experience. If you are a fan of Dario Argento’s stylistic genre favourites such as Suspiria or Tenebrae, then there is a huge amount of enjoyment to be taken from the movie. I truly admire for what Yann Gonzalez was striving but Knife + Heart would have benefitted from less convoluted plot development and more nostalgia soaked visual despair.