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“I Feel Totally OK with Being an Eternal Slave to Love and Cinema”: Yann Gonzalez on Obsession, Porn and Knife + Heart

Knife + Heart

Near the end of Yann Gonzalez’s queer neo-giallo intoxicant Knife + Heart, gay porn producer and director Anne (Vanessa Paradis) finds herself in a delapidated porno theatre in 1970s Paris, watching her own work from the past projected onto the screen. The elusive murderer terrorizing the set of her newest film is also transfixed by the porn being projected. Anne’s history as creator of fantasies and the traumatic history of the masked killer who’s been knocking off her cast and crew converge, film and reality melt into one another. They’re both frozen in their tracks in the cat and mouse game they’ve been playing with one another, brought together by obsession, trauma and cinema.

Drawing from a mix of vintage ’70s French porn and arthouse and exploitation auteurs, Gonzalez has crafted a singular treatise on submission, queerness and desire in film and love. With fondness for porn and its role in the formation of queer desire, Knife + Heart lovingly observes the various dynamics of power that play out on set, on screen, and in the audience. Splashed in neon, Knife + Heart’s gaze turns to the textural, sensual and spectral in queerness as sensibility and aesthetic. I spoke to Gonzalez about his influences, how he developed his film grammar for the porn films inside of Knife + Heart, the AIDS crisis and how obsession and submission fuel his work.

Filmmaker: Could you tell me about the process of developing a film grammar for the film itself ,as well as the porno films within Knife + Heart?

Gonzalez: If there’s a grammar here, it’s all about collisions and collage: collisions of opposite forces, energies, styles, textures; collage of colors, emotions, film inspirations. I wanted Knife + Heart to embrace the disturbed dynamics and passion of my main character, Anne, and to create an aesthetic that would be as absurd, intense and all over the place as her feelings and actions. To me every single shot had to reflect her love for Loïs—the dreamy, generous, ethereal aspect of it, but also its dark side, the rage and frustration Anne feels because she’s not loved in return. That very rage is to me embodied by the killer’s psyche, a character whom I consider as Anne’s doppelganger or evil twin: they both are driven by passion and violence, they both share a story of impossible love, but of course they express it in different ways that are perfectly reflected by the English title of the film, Knife+Heart. It also works for my aesthetics, I guess, going from the sharp fragmented flickering of editing to something more romantic, sensual and dreamy.

As for the porn films, I’d say we tried to be as silly and innocent as the French gay porn films from the late ’70s. Shooting in Super 16mm, sometimes using reversible film stock that enhanced the contrast of colors, was a first and obvious asset, the rest of the film being shot on 35mm film. But also trying to be as naive as possible in the mise-en-scène, not in order to make fun of those films—quite the opposite, actually, as we tried to pay tribute to those porn pioneers who seemed to make porn as if they were a bunch of nonsensical queer young adults. There’s something close to “art brut” in some of those films: they were wrapped in two or three days, sometimes less, and you can feel the rawness of the material through the shots, the young actors’ faces, and the documentary aspect of the images. The few films remaining are filled with rare and precious images from the gay underground society of that era, as they are taking place in public baths and toilets, porn theaters, etc.

Filmmaker: What was the pre-production period like for you, in terms of determining the aesthetic?

Gonzalez: Pre-production is always a synonym of hell for me! You can’t be aesthetically precise until you find the right locations, and today’s Paris has nothing in common with 1979’s Paris. When I watch any French film from the ’70s or early ’80s, I fall in love with everything: the crude wilderness of the streets and their blue-greenish lights we tried to reproduce, the commercial posters’ style, the texture of the walls and the buildings, the stores’ neon lights… All that beauty disappeared: now everything looks clean, ugly, and depressing, with those horrendous orange and LED lights, the same stores popping up all around, things that one could sum up as a consumerist plague, as well as a plague for taste! Nevertheless we tried to find the few places that—in Paris’s suburbs and in the Tour’s region where we shot—could recall the no man’s lands, the old construction sites, the deserted and dangerous streets from that time. Then we added some of our own elements: neon lights, flashy posters, vivid colors. It was a very collaborative period of work, since we worked hand in hand with my DP Simon Beaufils, my set designer Sidney Dubois and my costume designer Pauline Jacquard, trying to recreate a “bouquet” of colors, textures, lights and material that would exhale the perfume of that time without always being super accurate.

Filmmaker: You’ve said previously that obsession in the films of Brian De Palma and Dario Argento interested you. Here, you recontextualize that gaze, so it is not only about spectatorship but also about queer obsession. What about obsession in film appeals to you?

Gonazlez: Obsession is a necessary sickness for filmmakers. It’s all about the forbidden images you discover as a kid, watching porn or horror films in secret with all their transgressive and sexual power, the fear and desire they contain. Horror and queer obsessions are strongly related, since they both belong to the margins (of cinema and society); they both want to destroy and fuck the rules of the norm, they spit and howl and mess everything up. What’s more exciting than making films for this very reason? This is why as I grew up I felt compelled to challenge those fears and desires again with my own images, my actors’ faces, the eroticism I could convey through my frames and characters. Experimenting again, on set or during the editing process, this exhilarating feeling of subversion, building something dangerous and childish at the same time—this is, to me, what cinema is meant for.

Filmmaker: What kind of research did you do in terms of understanding the hierarchies, friendships, relationships, etc. that exist(ed) between cast and crew on porn sets? Do you see them as dramatically different than the relationships that exist on narrative film sets?

Gonzalez: One of the things I loved the most when I started to investigate the ’70s gay porn “milieu” is there was no real hierarchy: an actor or an operator could direct a film if they wanted to, most producers were filmmakers themselves, a boom operator could be asked to jerk off if there was one actor missing… Everything was a mess, and a joyful one most of the time, as everybody was part of the same sex gang, making films that didn’t give a shit about the classical rules or traditions of the regular industry. It was like a strange island for queers, mavericks, prostitutes and drug addicts. Of course, I might idealize it a bit, since I didn’t know that era (I was born in 1977), but I very much like this idea of a family made of society’s rejects. I think this queer family spirit is at the very heart of my film and I tried my best to avoid any hierarchy on our set as well.

Filmmaker: Could you talk about the scene in which Anne goes into a bar and watches a cabaret show involving a bear? Where did that come from?

Gonzalez: It actually was part of a previous unfinished screenplay based upon real facts that happened in France in the early 2000s: a group of three wild girls in love who murdered a young guy. I started to imagine a mix of fantasy and dark realism but Isild le Besco apparently read the same story and made this very interesting and disturbing film called Bas-Fonds. I threw everything away, but when I started to work on K+H I remembered this baroque sequence of cabaret inspired by an obscure French masterpiece, Simone Barbès ou la vertu by Marie-Claude Treilhou. It kind of found its place in the narrative, although at the end it looks like a strange protrusion, which to me is always a good thing. I like protrusions a lot, hahaha!

Filmmaker: Anne channels her fears and anxieties into the films she makes, fictionalizing and eroticizing them. Do you identify with that at all in your own creative process?

Gonzlez: Of course, although it’s not completely a self-portrait! Every film I make is fed by my fears, my own personal fetishes, the music I’m obsessed with and of course the love I feel for my actors, my friends or boyfriends—three distinct ranges of affection that play a great part in my creative process and are, at the end, way more powerful than my fears. Fears are very present at the start of the writing process but then you have to challenge them, to overcome them in order to turn them into something brighter, absurd, grotesque or simply creative, because, to quote Fassbinder, “fear eats the soul.” I co-wrote the film with one of my best friends, Cristiano Mangione, and it certainly made this catharsis easier and more joyful than ever. But it’s true that behind this project in particular, there’s the fear of something monstrous, which is probably the violence and hatred that queer people endure on a daily basis. The fact that we started to work on this a few months after the French legalization of gay marriage—a great law that made Catholic and fascist people absolutely furious, leading to disgusting demonstrations—probably played a great part in the premise of our story.

Filmmaker: A lot of this film feels like it embodies a kind of obsessive self-destructive power of love. The scene in which Anne scratches “you have killed me” into a strip of film (with a sequence reminiscent of Warhol’s Blow Job) is particularly heartbreaking, especially as she seems to be embedding herself very explicitly into her art. What drew you to have that scene in the film?

Gonazlez: It’s one of the first sequences I had in mind when I started to dig into this project, the moment where mad love and cinema would meet in a very tangible way. Anne is shouting her love on a film still, scratching it with her rage, her jealousy, re-enacting without knowing it the gestures of some pioneers of experimental films like Norman McLaren or French “lettriste” Maurice Lemaître. And yes, this specific film still of Félix Maritaud is indeed inspired by Warhol’s Blow Job. I loved the theoretical idea that a woman’s passion could interlace with those references. A kind of sentimental film-buff collage, if I might say so!

Filmmaker: Did you do any kind of preparation with Vanessa Paradis before shooting?

Gonazlez: Not really. Vanessa needs to be on set to really feel her character. We met several times before though, often with Kate Moran and Nicolas Maury, but it was more like a way to get to know each other. The only thing I did is to offer her some DVDs in order to help her understanding the kind of acting I had in mind for Anne. Possession by Zulawski, Neige by Juliet Berto, Blow Out by Brian De Palma: very intense, sometimes over-the-top performances, more cinematic than realistic. The blonde hair, green raincoat and red boots did the rest!

Filmmaker: You were heavily influenced by the work and lives of porn producer Anne-Marie Tensi and editor Loïs Koenigswerther for Vanessa Paradis’ Anne and Kate Moran’s Loïs. What about their tempestuous relationship shaped the way you wanted to articulate obsession and the role it plays in film as an artistic and collaborative medium?

Gonzalez: K+H is really about film as a medium of desire, but this couldn’t have been articulated in our digital era. It had to take place at a time where film was physical, sensual, where an editor could actually touch and caress the images produced by a filmmaker. I loved the idea of those two women working in the world of gay men’s porn and creating their own eroticism through a secret ceremony of cinema, hiding love messages behind the most grotesque and obscene images, sowing signs of seduction and affection through a double facial cumshot! I think we lost the romantic and erotic essence of cinema with the rise of digital. I really miss it and this is why I keep on shooting on film. It’s a way to keep some magic and to fuck the cold algorithms of our era. My US distributor, Frank Jaffe from Altered Innocence, was crazy enough to make a 35mm print of the film: you can call me old school, but the rolling sound and the flickering of a 35mm projector is the thing I regret the most when I go to a movie theatre nowadays.

Filmmaker: Did you have much time to rehearse with the actors, particularly regarding the sex scenes?

Gonzalez: Not much, but I made a short film called Islands a year before K+H, and to me it was like a sexual rehearsal of the feature film, although at the end the short is way more graphic than the feature, and very different as well, besides the presence of another monster/killer in it. As strange as it sounds, the sexual aspect of gay porn was not that important to me in K+H: I mostly wanted to depict the friendships, this secret lair of queer people, the goofy and melancholic aspect of the sex workers. I wanted the audience to feel empathy for my characters, and laughing with them was a more powerful emotional factor than watching them fuck I guess. One day I wish I could make a real porn film that would show the mystical, magical, and romantic side of hardcore sex, but this would be a completely different project.

Filmmaker: What was your experience shooting at the porno theater?

Gonzalez: It was complicated, because we decided to play the analog game 100% and screened all the footage that appears on screen with a real 35mm projector that we brought specially to this soon-to-be destroyed movie theater. So, synchronizing the screened reels with the action taking place in front of them was a real chore. Anyway, this is one of my favorite sequences at the end and I’m so proud of the tracks my brother composed for Le Tueur Homo (aka Homocidal) and De Sperme… et d’eau fraîche (aka Spunk and the land alone), our homemade porn films!

Filmmaker: What was the process of financing the film?

Gonzalez: It took a long time, almost a year and a half, because the most important funding film commissions want to put a label on every project they support, and this one was hard to categorize. I had the chance to work with a very daring and powerful young producer, Charles Gillibert, whom French TV channels trusted enough to support us because of his previous films (Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang, Olivier Assayas’ Sils Maria and Personal Shopper). Our international sales company was the amazing girl and guys from Kinology and we also had the joy to be co-produced by Switzerland’s Garidi Films and Mexico’s Piano Films who both put a big amount of money into the project. Without those unlikely and enthusiastic partners, I’m not sure we would have managed to reach our minimum budget, which was around €2.7 million.

Filmmaker: The English transliteration of the French title is A Knife in the Heart, and the killings, with a knife, involve penetration. It struck me about how much this film seemed to be about the ways in which in many circumstances people relinquish, or exchange, their power, either in love, or to the cinema itself. Could you talk about the way you negotiated power, dominance and submission, as both literal and figurative states of being in the film?

Gonzalez: There’s an essential factor of trust in submission: when I trust a film or a lover enough, I accept to be overwhelmed by it or him. This is how the beauty and epiphanies of love, sex and art can fully bloom: by letting yourself completely go and allowing the penetration of words, images, music or… cocks! The killer’s victims in the film, at least the first two, put too much trust in him in a way, and his dildo happens to hide a knife. I guess this works as a weird and grotesque metaphor for love being sometimes very deceitful and violent: a heart or a cock can often turn into knives [laughs]. I might talk nonsense, I’ve never thought of it like that, but it’s interesting. Anyway, I feel totally OK with being an eternal slave to love and cinema!

Filmmaker: The ending is beautiful. Without spoiling it, it is a chance for these characters to create and have a space for themselves. Were there any films or work that catalyzed this idea of wanting to create space for queerness and queer desire?

Gonzalez: It makes sense–although I realized the influence after shooting it–that this end credits sequence is a reminiscence from Gregg Araki’s Nowhere and its opening credits: the same shoegaze vibe (Slowdive vs. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma), blue titles, cross-fading shots and a lot of queer sensuality! I was 20 when this film was released in France and think I went to see it at least five or six times: I was completely obsessed with it as it showed some characters enjoying their queer identity within a fierce, fun, colorful environment. They had no boundaries, they were super sexy and were listening to the best music ever. I wanted to live that queer dream and no filmmaker in France was anywhere close to this kind of sensibility. Most of the gay-themed films were depressing, over-dramatic, aesthetically unadventurous and overusing those same old stories of coming out, although some of them were really good: I keep great memories of Catherine Corsini’s Les Amoureux, Sébastien Lifschitz’s Wild Side or André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds for instance. Cyril Collard’s Savage Nights was also very important to me at that time.

Filmmaker: What films were most formative for you in shaping your identity? What was the first porn film that changed your opinion about how we talk about porn as a kind of cinema and art in its own right?

Gonzalez: I grew up watching horror films and until the age of 13 or 14, despised anything that didn’t belong to that specific genre. Then I started to fall in love with European cinema–Wim Wenders, Paul Vecchiali, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean Rollin–and underground cult films like Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain or Richard Kern’s shorts. The first porn I saw was Behind the Green Door: The Sequelwhere the actors fucked exclusively with condoms: it was not that arousing, I guess, and way less experimental than the original, but this is how it was to be a teenager in the middle of the AIDS crisis! I discovered the most outrageous and radical porn films much later as a film student thanks to my marvelous professor Nicole Brenez. Around 1999 I even wrote a dissertation about amateur porn, a niche that I was fascinated by and found very fruitful aesthetically and theoretically.

Filmmaker: This film takes place before the AIDS crisis, and without being morbid about it, it does seem that the film infers that its characters are aware of something to come. Did the AIDS crisis shape you at all as a filmmaker and the kinds of stories you wanted to tell?

Gonzalez: The threat of AIDS was very present in my sexual life, but as a filmmaker I tried to build a world where people would be free to fantasize without fears and boundaries. Of course things are different for Knife+Heart, since it pictures the last months before the epidemic and one can also see the killer as a metaphor for the plague which is about to come. Also watching the French gay porn films of the ’70s, I had the same feeling you’re talking about: in some of them, there were those absurd and melancholic moments where nothing happened and the actors were just sitting still in complete silence, offering their sad gaze to the camera, like they intuitively knew that something terrible was coming. Those strange and captivating images played a big part in my desire to make this film.

Filmmaker: Did your perspective on love and/or sex change after you completed the film?

Gonzalez: No. But it pissed off so many straight people and uptight film critics in France that it made me want to be even more fierce and challenging in the future. Although I don’t want to become an advocate for French queer cinema and there’s a chance my next film will skip any sexual matter for a change. I’ve been dealing with that for 12 years now, since my very short film actually, and I want to try a different path. We’ll see, nothing is set in stone yet!

Filmmaker: What kind of film do you think Anne would have made next?

Gonzalez: Sometimes I think about writing a sequel to Knife+Heart where Anne and Archibald would try the first video cameras of the early ’80s in the midst of the AIDS crisis and they would probably make films to exorcize the plague and their personal losses: awkward and politically incorrect tragic porn films, I guess, but with a strange sense of community and pride that would save them from total embarrassment.

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