“Captivating aesthetics and a genuinely meaty setting.”
Behind the most elaborate facades, there must lie an even more fascinating true story — or so director Franck Ribière must believe. In this case, the first-time French writer/director takes on the larger-than-life tale of the Grand Guignol, and specifically its captivating real-life star, Paula Maxa, who is estimated to have been ‘murdered’ onstage more than 10,000 times in her two-decade career. Fortunately, Ribière seems to understand the sinister yet irresistible allure of the horrific goings-on within the infamous Parisian theatre, which specialized in naturalistic body-horror pieces which shocked and revolted adoring audiences. His film is chock full of gory, tasteless grisliness worthy of the Guignol stage through and through. Unfortunately, where the onstage gore ends and the ‘real-life’ fictionalized plot of The Most Assassinated Woman in the World begins, it all just becomes a big mess.
The film is set in 1932 Paris, at the height of the Grand Guignol’s notoriety. While protestors scream until they are blue in the face with evangelical rage at the sinful delights going on inside, the detractors are overshadowed by the almost sycophantic devotees of the theatre, particularly the men so enraptured by Paula Maxa (Anna Mouglalis) that they wait outside the theatre just to hear her scream. While the film certainly talks a big game at how many mortals long to fall at Maxa’s feet every night, there is more telling than showing in this regard, and Maxa is, more often than not, seen gliding about alone. That is, until plucky reporter Jean (Niels Schneider) decides to get involved with ‘helping’ her, initially for a story but eventually as a partner. As a real-life murderer begins savaging women across the city — all of whom look suspiciously reminiscent of Maxa’s general aesthetic — Maxa and Jean engage in varying methods of self-preservation and digging down to the truth.
This film has a lot going for it. Underneath all the eyesore viscera, the oddly 80s-like pulsing score (which is a great score, don’t get me wrong), and the somewhat staid cinematography, there is a bona fide neo-noir begging to be let out. Mouglalis is quite good as the mysterious, capable, yet troubled Paula, and supporting cast members such as Eric Godon, Michel Fau, and Constance Dollé imbue their moments onscreen with palpable emotion, while the story itself could approach some genre classics with its haunting twists and turns. But Ribière seems to have skipped a lot of steps when plotting, and for the last hour the story is one long meander, needlessly twisty — not helped by the fact that a good number of the actors look exactly the same under all those shadows.
Not to mention – and gosh I had not realized how much this device irritates me until I saw this film! — it can be hard at times, when watching The Most Assassinated Woman in the World, to properly deduce who is an apparition, and who is not. There are so many hallucinated people in rooms, meant to denote a haunting memory, or even a spectral suggestion, that the effect just gets maddening with its repetitiveness. Suddenly all sorts of deceased loved ones are appearing in bathtubs and behind closet doors to remind the audience that the hallucinator is ‘troubled,’ but they add nothing after the first couple of times. Overall, Ribière’s film has some captivating aesthetics and a genuinely meaty setting, yet one wishes the content was leaner, clearer, and simply more fun by the final curtain.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 25 June)
Go to The Most Assassinated Woman in the World at the EIFF