To be an admirer of the horror genre at large is, in part, to have a preoccupation with the macabre, a curiosity into the malevolent, grotesque acts that mankind’s dark imagination is capable of conjuring and an appreciation for the craft of bringing our primal fears into clear view. To know that what scares you also scares another is perhaps horror’s greatest gift, a sense of belonging that has generated communities of fandom — such as the Frightfest Film Festival — that can scream together in glee as blood sprays and bodies drop. Captivation in a darkened auditorium is one of many focuses in director Franck Ribière’s debut feature The Most Assassinated Woman in the World, but his fascination with the artifice of a great scare leaves a blinkered approach to the lives, and deaths, of those off-stage.
A fantasy extracted from biography, The Most Assassinated Woman in the World crafts a backstage murder mystery from the career of Paula Maxa (Anna Mouglalis) — the eponymous real-life star actor who, according to the film’s opening monologue, had been “assassinated more than 10,000 times onstage” at the Grand Guignol Theatre in Paris — and it’s set during the 1930s as the rise of cinema comes to threaten the relevancy of the theatre and a malevolent figure from Paula’s past comes to threaten her life.
Most intriguing is the film’s ambitious scope: Ribière creates a wide portrait out of a close-up drama, relating Maxa’s masochistic impulses to the conflicts and motivations of those that surround her. There is her love-interest Jean — a crime journalist investigating a series of killings inspired by Maxa’s fantastical bloodletting — who refuses to see a doctor about an open wound across his abdomen, the Guignol’s audience who delight at being revulsed and terrorised (with sick buckets and bloody bibs in hand) as Maxa is mutilated beyond belief onstage, the leader (Vérane Frédiani) of protest against the Guignol’s naturalised horror productions who craves her crusade more than its objective and, of course, Maxa herself, who has a compulsive need to play the victim and to scream again and again due to trauma she believes could’ve been avoided if only she screamed. The depth and skill to which the film investigates personal masochisms wildly varies, but it generates an overall gothic, conspiratorial mood which helps to cement the occasionally absurd plot mechanics. The film’s cast of characters thrive on pain and horror, and there is a thick air of terror in Ribière’s Paris, but a delightful one full of morbid curiosity. The Most Assassinated Woman in the World is not, by my estimation, a horror film, but a film about horror spectatorship; the joy of discomfort.
There’s an audience-centred perspective to horror cinema, feeding a fascination with transgressive imagery, bloody viscera and horrific shocks, all aimed at involving the audience directly with action onscreen and inducing a bodily reaction. Ribière’s recreations of the Guignol’s gnarly pantomimes are observed with the love of a genre fan, watching plays about torture and mania with a knowing wink as the mechanics of lurid effects are shown to the camera and the grisly splatter thrills a part-terrified, part-elated crowd; the film’s audience is treated to the “how it’s done” element that mystified and drew in the Guignol’s crowd for decades. It is this textural love-letter to entertainment that generates the film’s most gratifying moments, however, it is this enamoured emphasis that leaves many other elements of the plot and characterisation out of balance. The aforementioned romance between Maxa and Jean becomes a dull narrative packhorse to generate expositional scenes, and the strand involving the roaming killer’s actual murders muddies the film’s portrait of horror as pure entertainment, introducing an exploitational “life-imitates-art” theme yet failing to delve deeper into the subject, instead again becoming an expositional vehicle.
The Most Assassinated Woman in the World fails to thoroughly explore many themes it introduces by broadening its gaze further than its narrative constraints will allow, but its atmosphere of reverence and comradery for a period of genre innovation and masochistic delight is enough to keep an interest alive in Maxa’s career as the proto-Scream Queen and the Grand Guignol’s gradual acceptance of its place in changing times.
Paul Farrell (@InPermafrost) is a freelance writer and programmer. He has contributed to MUBI Notebook, The Digital Fix and BLAM! Magazine. Paul also programmes independent & community cinema events in Birmingham, UK. When he grows up, he wants to be Zazie from Zazie in the Metro.