For horror enthusiasts, Franck Ribiere’s The Most Assassinated Woman in the World, a film centred around Paris’ infamously depraved Grand Guignol theatre, is an absolute treat. Part biopic, part period thriller, part giallo film, Ribiere’s first time in the director’s chair has yielded an ambitious taste-board of classic and contemporary horror thrills around the life of Paula Maxa, star of the Guignol, and titular Assassinatee.
From the traditional giallo opening scenes, Ribiere proves he knows what he’s gotten himself into. The veteran producer has been behind some of the most accomplished Euro horrors of the past decade, with credits on Inside, Livid, and Shrew’s Nest keeping him in with the Indy horror scene. So The most Assassinated Woman in the World is a pretty ambitious big-budget first film. The production quality is stunning. Even those first shots of lamp-lit street, a woman walking faster and faster to evade some unseen stalker, the click of unseen heels, it’s a great intro to Ribiere’s world, and the world of the Grand Guignol, whilst also pointing at the Guignol’s integral influence on genre cinema.
Guignol celebrated schlock before anyone else did. It brought splatter to the stage in the form of crude exploitation plays and theatrical executions. The Italian Giallo films of the 70’s, and American Slasher films of the 80’s, drew from the Guignol’s profitable gore-heavy displays, or at least carried the torch once it died. The ‘Video Nasties’ ban of the 80’s seems ludicrous in light of what was happening in 1910’s Paris, but censorship seems to be an eternal ball and chain around the neck of horror. The Guignol also faced huge pressures from social and political groups for its supposedly demoralising influence on France. Ribiere smartly positions his film towards the end of the Guignol’s reign and includes those screeching masses which would lead to its closure.
Ribeiere doesn’t have genre commentary in mind though. At the heart of it, this is a good old fashioned thriller using the trappings of its influences to show where it got all its tricks. Like a big love letter. The blood-letting is lovingly examined and executed, and even more loving is the full-blooded depiction of the Guignol as a functioning social venue. If Ribiere is fascinated with the impact of the performances, he’s just as in awe of the people who made these grizzly displays possible. On the plus side there’s a superb cast of French talent bringing those people to life, not least the show-stopping Anna Mouglalis, on the down side it spreads itself a bit thin. Too many characters and not enough characterisation.
Keren Ann’s soundtrack incorporates droning cello’s and Hitchcockian strings, but more as an amalgam of pleasing motifs rather than a cohesive, mood-altering soundtrack. The film does gel modern sensibilities with classic theatricality pretty well, though. Cinematographer Laurent Bares brings the brooding energy of his resume (Inside, Frontier(s), Hitman, The Divide) to the Gothic streets of Paris and the sumptuous dingy theatre. Up-and-coming visual effects artist Gael Durant has proven a talent for visceral realistic gore with Raw and Pilgrimage, and he brings that modern edge to the classic mise en scene of the Grand Guignol. The gore on show is scarcer than you might expect, but always visceral. There was a chance that this film could have ended up like The Butcher Brothers’ From Hell, or James McTeigue’s The Raven, with the wrong editor. McTeigue’s film pulled a similar, old-school Gothic with a modern sensibility thing, but the editing channelled too much Saw and totally detracted from everything else on screen. Sebastien Prangere (Silent Hill, Martyrs, The Tall Man) pulls Ribiere’s yarn together beautifully, helping keep a contemporary pace without losing its classy aesthetic.
In many ways, The Most Assassinated Woman in the World feels like a love letter from the “New School” to the old. New talent in European horror has never been more exciting, and this kind of film has been dying to get made for years, only, maybe there’s been too many imitators. Maybe, we’ve seen it all before and this film could never really spin a yarn interesting enough to compete with the energy and vibrancy of the actual Guignol or its impact.
Though the last act isn’t nearly as thrilling as the first two, and Ribiere’s stamina for a catchy mystery isn’t nearly as consistent as his shameless affection for the era. The Most Assassinated Woman in the World is a sumptuous slice of Euro-Gothic nostalgia flaunting an incredible turn from its lead and a fun enough slew of twists to stop it ever becoming dull. It’s well worth checking out if you’re interested in some genre history, or like your thrillers on the decadent side.
Dir. Franck Ribiere
Stars. Anna Mouglalis, Niels Schneider, Eric Godon, Sissi Duparc, Andre Wilms,