French writer-director Yann Gonzalez is well studied in the art of cinema. A connoisseur of art films both high and low-brow, his influences show in his work, but he manages to take what he likes and give it his own spin.
A former member of the esteemed electronic group M83 with his brother Anthony, Gonzalez moved into the world of film in the mid-2000s (while still collaborating with the group on projects). Between 2006 and 2012, he directed six short films before turning to full-length features with You and the Night, which was presented during the Critics’ Week at the Cannes Festival and was released in theaters internationally in November 2013. His second full-length feature film, the critically-acclaimed gay porn industry-centered period piece/thriller Knife+Heart (frequently referred to by the French title Un Couteau dans le cœur), will be released on DVD and Blu-ray June.
Enjoy this interview with Yann Gonzalez below (taken from the film’s official press package) and click here to pre-order your copy. Knife+Heart is an exceptional flick and an absolute must-see for gay cinema lovers.
Where did you get your first ideas for Knife+Heart?
From a character, above all. Thanks to the Dictionnaire de la pornographie (Dictionary of Pornography) put together by Christophe Bier, I’d heard about a 1970s female French gay porn director who was passionate, an alcoholic, homosexual, and in love with her film editor… She had the reputation of being harsh, unpredictable and making her actors do humiliating things during casting sessions. In short, she was a very colorful character. I wanted to get away from the cotton candy sweetness of my first film, Les Rencontres d’après minuit (You and the Night), and turn towards something more urban, more rousing. I thought her character would be a great vector for that.
Did you do research on her?
Absolutely. Thanks to Hervé Joseph Lebrun, the specialist in French gay porn, I spoke to people who’d spent time with her – she’s been dead for a long time, as has her editor – her old competitors, colleagues, etc. That helped me to bring together a large amount of documentation. But there was something seedy in what I had and that wasn’t the direction I wanted to take. On the contrary, I wanted something flamboyant, something romantic. So I decided to reinvent her and turn her into a fictional character, whilst still preserving this love story with her editor as well as half of her first name, as a sort of spiritual, secret tribute to this underground heroine.
Did you work alone on this?
I had issues making progress alone. I was at a standstill. I spoke to Cristiano Mangione about the subject as he’d already advised me on most of my films. He’s an extremely gifted author and director whose projects also show his great love for all things relative to gender and transgression. We started talking, just like that, and such hilarious, wacky things came out of our discussions that we rapidly decided to co-author the scenario. It was a really jubilant experience. We didn’t set ourselves any limits, nothing was forbidden. It was pure pleasure. We followed this character through a frivolous and sometimes cruel labyrinth. But at the same time, we wanted it to be fun every step of the way. And zany too.
There’s a very refreshing craziness at the very heart of the film: it’s free, radical, excessive.
I like to describe Un Couteau dans le cœur (Knife+Heart) as the portrait of a woman in love who’s climbed onto a ghost train. I love this idea of a fairground film – you climb up on a ride without knowing where it’s going to take you.
This fairground element can also be found in the family you portray, all these characters who work together in the world of porn: actors, cameramen, the director, and assistants… They’re a real troupe.
Yes, this troupe aspect was important for me as of my very first films. It’s important in fiction, as in the friendship that binds certain of the film’s characters, in particular Anne the film director, and Archibald her right-hand man, where we see a friendship that is crucial and more enduring than love. But it’s also important in real life. I’ve been working with some of these actors since my first short films. I really like the fact that we go through these films and life together. I’m thinking in particular of Kate Moran, who was in my first short film twelve years ago, and who plays Loïs the film editor, the heroine’s lost love. The link that Kate and I have is precious, like a brother-sister relationship. And I’ve never been quite so awed by her as I was when we shot this film. With each film, I also like to bring in some new blood to join these regulars. That provides for great energy and above all, electrifying moments. For me, the casting process is the most thrilling part in making a film; it’s what really makes the fiction come alive.
This art of a cast picked out like an explosive cocktail was already present in You and the Night, but it’s even more striking here because there are lots more characters.
Yes, there’s around forty of them! I love the great knock-on effect it brings about, as much from my point of view as a cinema-lover as from my point of view as a film director. For example, Bertrand Mandico, the director of Garçons sauvages (The Wild Boys), was a recent and very decisive encounter for me, and here he plays the role of the director of photography, François Tabou – whose name makes us think of François About, director of photography for most 70s gay porn films. But each character has his or her own story. For Romane Bohringer, it’s linked to my absolute worship – as any young gay kid from the provinces – of Nuits fauves (Savage Nights). I contacted Romane very early on in the process, at least two years before we started shooting. I was really unsettled about meeting her, as it was such a throwback to my teenage years. Ingrid Bourgoin, who plays the barmaid in the lesbian cabaret, was the heroine of one of my favorite films that came of out the 70s’ Vecchiali galaxy, Simone Barbès ou la Vertu, by Marie-Claude Treilhou. In the film, she plays a young lesbian woman who works in a porn cinema, and who goes through a whole night of hopeless love and melancholy. It’s an absolutely magnificent film. So, all that comes from very different places within my life and fuses with my great and undeniable love for all cinema genres.
Sometimes, certain casting choices are made for incongruous reasons. At a certain stage of the financing, we set up a co-production with Mexico, so I had to take on a Mexican actor. That’s how Noé Hernandez, who I adored in Tenemos la carne (We Are the Flesh) by Emiliano Rocha Minter, joined Vanessa Paradis’ troupe of porn actors. He didn’t speak a word of French and learned all his dialogue phonetically. He brought extraordinary color, energy and euphoria to the scenes. These synergies are fascinating, almost magical because they’re linked to so many flukes, desires that collide – or not.
And then of course, there’s Vanessa Paradis, to whom you offered what must be one of her greatest roles in cinema. As a strong-minded woman who keeps a firm hand on her little world of men whilst she’s secretly devastated by heartbreak, she has never been so assertive yet vulnerable at the same time.
Anne is a very strong woman, but also flawed, unfair, and excessive. The film is an ode to all things feminine, even the most negative aspects. It’s a sort of loving portrait of the character, as much as of Vanessa Paradis herself in fact. The incredible attraction we felt for each other as professionals when we very first met was decisive for the creation of this film.
Vanessa was a driving element for all of us. As of the very start. She accepted the film just three days after having read the scenario. She’s in love with love, and that goes for the love of cinema too. She has a constant vital, loving spark and a very direct rapport to cinema. She is always extremely sensitive and that’s even more visible the minute you say “Motor”. She’s someone who doesn’t hide behind a mask, which is rare today with well-known actresses, particularly in France. You can see that she is extremely generous and kind and her face reminds me of the silent movies great actresses such as Janet Gaynor, for example, who was Frank Borzage’s favorite actress. She has that particular sort of on-screen presence, and the unaffected overwhelming innocence of someone who’s playing in a film for the first time.
In your option, what aspect of the project touched her most for her to throw herself into it body and soul?
I think it’s the fact that emotions are constantly pushed to their upper limit. This is a character that goes through everything that can bring emotion – disaster, violence, and passion. For an actress, it’s a sort of constant firework display that can be quite exalting. But a little intimidating too, even for someone with such a rich and varied career. After two or three days of shooting, I said to her: “Don’t try to make up a character. Don’t be afraid of just being yourself. Because it’s also you that I want to film through this character.” And I think that got us both where we needed to be. When I say that she was a driving element for all of us, it’s not just a figure of speech: shooting a film can be really hard, ambitions clash with reality, with the budget, or lack of time, etc. In spite of that, this shooting was bathed in elation; I was surrounded by people in love with the project. And it’s Vanessa who set the tone for that with her longing to do this film, which spread to the rest of the team.
How did you foresee working on gender, in particular in respect of the film’s gory aspect?
I wanted to have fun with fantasy, horror or even giallo codes, whilst remaining respectful of them of course. Above all, I didn’t want to try to be smarter than the genre but rather to embrace it and assume it. I really wanted there to be an emotional aspect linked to the genre, because for me the greatest thrillers or horror films are those that touch your feelings. The Exorcist is also a melodrama about a mother who is losing her daughter, An American Werewolf in London by John Landis is a great film on lost friendship. These are terrifying films, but first and foremost, they make me cry.
Certain scenes are really frightening and the distress linked to the murders is tangible. How can you use the mise en scène to cause fear?
I very quickly got the idea of asking Jonathan Genet, who plays the murderer, never to take off his mask on set. So apart from two or three team members who knew the secret, nobody else knew who he was. That brought a really strange atmosphere to the set on the days when he was there. And he gave everything he had to give. He really got into his character’s dark side. For me it’s the actors who drive a film’s tone, and Jonathan gave it a violent and worrying tone because his character is crushed by tragedy. I wanted him to be a moving, yet terrifying monster.
In the galaxy of favorite influences that guide you and that you often quote – Werner Schroeter, Paul Vecchiali, R.W. Fassbinder – this film brings to light a new figure: Brian De Palma.
My co-writer and I share a great passion for De Palma. This is a common thread that has clearly led us both. In terms of emotional thrillers, De Palma is the king. These are also the first films I showed my producer, Charles Gillibert, to demonstrate to him in what direction I wanted to take Un Couteau. proportionally speaking, of course. De Palma has this unabashed, playful side, weaving constantly between fiction, reality, the cinema, fantasy and voyeurism. He also has an absolute love of the cinema. Un Couteau dans le cœur starts with a 16mm editing table and finishes up on a sort of stellar “projection” – the love of the matter that makes up cinema itself is very much present. A cry of love and rage is etched into the actual film with a knife and is only visible once it’s been through the viewer. I really liked the idea that a woman’s desperate love situation could slip its way onto the film itself.
How did you profile the 70s treatment? The film never falls into the “period film” cliché, it’s much more subtle than that.
I was really worried about it looking like an academic reconstruction, and with my director of photography, Simon Beaufils, we very quickly got the idea of working using light to work on the period. Today, all Paris streets are lit using sodium lighting, which gives a horrible yellowy-orange light. So we strived to find the blue-green neon glow of French films from the late ’70s/early ’80s. Obviously there was a lot of very important and precise work on costumes and settings but, above all, I didn’t want a film that would look outdated. It also had to be able to talk about today’s world using faces and bodies from today. That’s why I called on iconic figures of present-day nightlife, such as Simon Thiébaut who plays Dominique, the head of the transgender gang; or the choreographer for the club scene, Ari de B, who came on set with all his dancers. There’s something very contemporary that shines out through our fantasy 1979 Paris.
Color is extremely present and particularly flashy. It has strong visual presence.
The film shows messed up, euphoric characters, and I wanted a visual portrayal of the inner quandaries they are struggling with. I didn’t want to shy away from going deep inside their minds and extracting images. I love this idea of embracing experimental practices and bringing them into slightly more mainstream cinema, even if I’m aware of the fact that I don’t make the most mainstream films in the world (laughs)! There’s a whole “fringe” that has nurtured my love of the cinema and I want to bring that into my universe, make it more visible. I’m thinking for example of Paul Sharits’ films that used strobing to give a flicker effect to images and I picked up on that to portray the killer’s negative image “memories”.
How did you go about working on the music with your brother, Anthony Gonzalez? What desires guided you in this particular project?
We wanted to recapture the giallo ambiance of the ’70s, to feel that sinister yet sentimental tone. But we also needed to distance ourselves from that in order to create something contemporary, and not find ourselves in a pastiche of the genre and its music. Faithful yet unfaithful at the same time. We are both poetical and even sentimental, in a certain way. We wanted to dive in headlong, particularly as melancholy and poetry are found in numerous ’70s horror film soundtracks, from films by Lucio Fulci to those by Mario Bava – I’m thinking in particular of the harrowing sound tracks of Don’t Torture a Duckling or Twitch of the Death Nerve.
And here again, this principle of pleasure came rushing back: I got Anthony to listen some old soundtracks from straight and gay porn films. He quickly gathered the musical codes and finally, the most beautiful tracks in Le Couteau, the most pleasurable ones, are probably the ones he recreated for the film’s fake porn movies.
For this soundtrack, Anthony worked once again with Nicolas Fromageau, who he’d already worked with on the first two M83 albums and who’s a childhood friend. For the three of us, there’s something about Un Couteau dans le cœur that’s strongly linked to our teenage years and the films that fostered our love of cinema.
The films I liked as a teenager were a little more “strange”. My brother is four years younger than me and he told me a few years after the fact that he and Nicolas used to sneak into my bedroom in Antibes to watch my videos by Jodorowsky, Richard Kern and Jean Rollin, and they were quite marked by that! The soundtrack to Un Couteau dans le cœur was a way for Nicolas, Anthony and I to come back to our first loves, our first powerful images and sensations from the cinema.
How did you deal with shooting the porn scenes? They’re extremely suggestive, but you don’t actually see anything head-on.
I didn’t want the sexuality to veil Anne’s tragedy, her adventure, which for me is the film’s backbone. It’s first and foremost the portrait of a woman and it just so happens she produces porn films. We kept all the imagery and the substance and had great fun with that but without showing the coarsest of images because to top it off, that’s not what I retain from porn films of the period. I wanted to come back to a sort of innocence and naïveté that you saw in the first porn films. It was before AIDS came on the scene and there was an obvious enjoyment in playing together, and taking pleasure together and some films even mixed heterosexual and homosexual sex scenes. Nicolas Maury dealt really well with this playful aspect in the fantastic way he has of playing with genders, identities and even his own femininity when he portrays a transgender version of Vanessa in several scenes.
It was important to make these scenes moments of comedy and to bring a certain joy into the sex. The aim was to make the viewer want to be a part of things. I think that a young heterosexual male could quite easily want to live within the film. For me it’s a much more important gesture, and much more political than showing sex scenes in order to shock the middle class… who aren’t actually shocked by much and haven’t been in a very long time!
In any case, your cinema contains more of an erotic element rather than veritable pornography.
For me, cinema is ontologically erotic. We mentioned De Palma a little earlier. We could also have mentioned Verhoeven, Argento, Fulci and dozen other great or lesser masters who aren’t so well known. I miss that subversion in today’s cinema. Sexuality cuts through feelings; it’s part of what forms a person, part of his story. Anne is tormented by her sexuality, through her work but also because of the way she loves. The use of voyeurism inherited from De Palma recurs throughout the story: Anne spies on her editor through a spy hole; two boys are spied on by their father as they have sex… It’s something that is repeated throughout the film. There’s a very erotic desire that isn’t mine, it belongs to the film itself, to its very essence. We’re in a time of regression and puritanism that I wanted to go against whilst recapturing the lifeblood of cinema.