James Franco is probably the only thing missing from Knife+Heart, an outrageous, bloody horror film set in the 1970s gay French porn industry with a masked killer who uses a spring-blade dildo to dispatch his victims.
Inspired by the stylized thrillers of director Brian De Palma (Dressed to Kill) and the Italian horror film genre giallo—the original 1977 Suspiria is a giallo classic—out French director Yann Gonzalez brings us the twisted tale of Anne (Vanessa Paradis), an alcoholic, prickly producer of low-rent, cheesy gay porn films. When one of her boyish stars, Karl (Bastian Waultier), is violently stabbed to death during a hookup, it sets off a series of murders and danger for Anne’s collaborators, including flamboyant right-hand-queen Archibald (Nicolas Maury), while she also tries to win back her ex-girlfriend and editor, Lois (Kate Moran).
Set to a retro giallo-style synth score by Gonzalez’s brother’s M83, Knife+Heart was a competition title at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Based in Paris with his boyfriend, whom he notes appears in a climactic orgy scene, Gonzalez spilled tea (but no blood) when discussing the film with NewNowNext.
How would you describe “giallo” to someone unfamiliar with the genre?
Giallo comes from ‘yellow’ in Italian, and the yellow thriller books that were published in the 1960s. It really comes from the atmosphere of those books, and there is always a murder mystery and killer with a knife and in French, we say ‘white weapon.’ It’s a masked killer and a very suspenseful atmosphere and always something sexual.
Which giallo would you most like to see celebrated or get more attention in the wake of your film?
One that comes to mind is not a famous one, called The Perfume of the Lady in Black. It’s one of the dreamiest giallos I’ve ever seen. The narrative is kind of loose, you don’t understand what’s going on, but it’s dreamy and fascinating.
I understand the character of Anne was inspired by a real female gay porn producer. What can you tell us about her?
She was very obscure, her name was Anne-Marie Tensi. I came across her name by chance because I read about her in a dictionary about porn. She made a lot of films, they would be seen for one week and disappear, and she had a reputation as being stingy and crazy and insulting her actors, especially during casting. She would ask them to strip and make fun of their cocks. To me, she was ahead of her time because she was making films only with men, with gay guys, and working hand-in-hand with her editor who was also her lover, like in the film.
The first murder scene is very similar to the first kill in William Friedkin’s Cruising. Was this an intentional homage?
Yeah, actually. I thought of Cruising while writing the script with my co-screenwriter Cristiano Mangione, but at the same time, I wanted to find my own vibe. When I was on the set, I forgot about Cruising and thought about my characters, and wanted to shoot the sequence with my own style. I do think Knife+Heart is a very different film.
There are some really outrageous moments in the film, like another murder involving oral sex with the dildo knife. Did the insanity ever carry over and things get weird on set?
Oh yes! There’s a cabaret sequence which went really crazy, because one of the actresses is a performance artist, and I think she was a bit on drugs or something and she had this obsession with peeing on the head of her on-screen partner during her performance. Her partner was horrified and I was, too! She was brilliant but very dangerous! I was glad it was not happening every day, otherwise, it would have been a nightmare. And then the murder sequence with the blowjob and dildo, we made a prosthetic head because the blade had to burst out the back. The actor went a bit crazy and started to kiss his own prosthetic head.
Nicolas Maury was also in your debut feature about a pansexual orgy, 2013’s You And The Night, playing a transvestite maid named Udo. In Knife+Heart, he also gender-bends a little and resembles the Jack Fairy character from Velvet Goldmine. Is Nicolas your muse?
Most of my actors are muses, because I’m inspired by faces. When I write a film, I think of actors’ faces. More than a muse, I think Nicolas is the greatest male actor today in France. He’s so good at everything he does. He’s not only funny, he always adds something poetic and disturbing even. I wasn’t thinking Jack Fairy, but at times he looks like a young Robert De Niro!
Variety said you “may be the next” Pedro Almodovar or Francois Ozon. Thoughts?
To me, they are very different. Apart from the fact they are both openly gay, I don’t think there is much resemblance. I appreciate Ozon’s films, he makes one a year and some are really good, but to me they’re cold and he has a cold heart. Almodovar is the opposite. He’s a genius and warm and human. But I don’t know what that critic was trying to say!
Would you like to see a big wave of queer horror films if your film proves a success?
Yeah, of course, I would like some people to make more crazy queer horror films. That would be great! Horror films are mostly straight, and I think it’s too straight a genre. Young people are freer and sexually liberated, but the horror films are still a bit behind that vibe. They should be more fierce and provocative.
Knife+Heart hits theaters March 15.