MUBI Movies: KNIFE + HEART (2018)

Come for the dildo-knife, stay for the deconstruction of queer art.

MUBI is a streaming service catering to cinephiles who believe in quality over quantity. Each day, MUBI adds a new film to its library, where it will stay for 30 days, after which it circulates out and gives room for another new entry. Throughout 2019, we will highlight one MUBI movie per month to help illustrate the catalog’s breadth and importance.

If you’re anything like me, you hear the phrase “dildo-knife” and immediately perk up with excitement for whatever thing you need to watch to see such an implement put to good use. It was that combination of words that initially sold me on Knife + Heart, but it would be a disservice to the intent of the film to consider it the kind of exploitation that a dildo-knife would imply. Instead, Knife + Heart is surprisingly somber and introspective, using the giallo stylization of the film's era as the baseline through which it examines the costs of exploitation cinema on the communities it exploits. Maybe that’s not as viscerally fun as a dildo-knife, but it’s at least as interesting and much more thought-provoking.

Set in Paris in the summer of 1979, Knife + Heart follows Anne (Vanessa Paradis), a director of cheap gay porn who has recently been dumped by her girlfriend and editor, Lois (Kate Moran). As Lois tries to make her relationship with Anne strictly professional, a man in a leather mask starts killing Anne’s actors with the aforementioned dildo-knife. This, in turn, becomes Anne’s inspiration for a new plotline in her latest film, dramatizing the police investigation and the murders of her employees in a bid to elevate her artform and, with futile hopefulness, win an increasingly disillusioned Lois back.

As is to be expected, the pure spectacle of using a knife disguised as a dildo to commit murders modeled after sex acts is both inventive in execution and gratifying to watch. But for as fun and silly as Knife + Heart’s kills can be, director and co-writer Yann Gonzalez (with co-writer Christiano Mangione) is less interested in making an exploitation film than examining the process of making exploitative cinema. Anne’s films are quick productions that cash in on real tragedy to titillate and arouse her audience through a filter of surreality and permissive sleaze. Either out of guilt over how she is using the dead for her own profit or out of a complete lack of self-awareness, she substitutes herself in as her film’s masked killer, foreshadowing her own culpability in their fates and highlighting her selfish desire to place herself into the frames that Lois must edit together. Anne’s film therefore becomes a commentary on Anne’s life and the way she uses the people around her, ostensibly to make art but ultimately to profit from the cheap desperation of the people she uses.

This only becomes more apparent as Anne’s personal investigation into the murders starts to yield piecemeal truths as to the killer’s real identity and what his motivations are for this killing spree. Without spoiling the climax of the film, it’s safe to say that Anne’s role as a storyteller was an impetus for her actors being chosen as targets, which the film attempts to distract from with moments of magical realism and straight-up fantasy. But ultimately the cold reality is that the supposedly harmless stories Anne tells have real, lasting impacts on the gay men and transgender women she uses to tell them and the community they inhabit.

Knife + Heart exists as a contradiction of criticizing exploitation while simultaneously being exploitative, but the underlying message of the human costs of exploitation is certainly worth pondering. Anne’s journey exacts a heavy price from those caught in her web of intrigue, but just as she learns a valuable lesson from her own art, so too do we derive an understanding of the creative consequences of art meant to exploit the underrepresentation of certain groups, especially if that art is already subject to another layer of cultural taboo, as porn and sex work most assuredly are. And all it took was the promise of a dildo-knife slasher flick to draw us into the bigger ideas.

Knife + Heart is now streaming on MUBI and you can watch it here!