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Before the rise of film and television, the theater was not just a place where people went for high-brow entertainments and musicals. The stage was once the home of popular entertainment, where everyone would go to laugh, cry, and even be scared shitless. This latter emotion is the primary concern of Netflix‘s The Most Assassinated Woman in the World. Unfortunately, the story that the film tells is far less exciting than the art form to which it pays tribute.
The French film, which debuted this week on the streaming platform, attempts to use the legendarily violent, bloody, terrifying, yet somewhat campy Grand Guignol theatrical tradition as a vehicle to explore modern issues. Grand Guignol, named for the Parisian theater that perfected the form and where the bulk of this film is set, is perhaps only familiar to those who took theater history in college. The combination of gross, bloody scares and high theatricality once featured there set the tone for the modern slasher film we know today. The influence of Grand Guignol cannot be understated in theater, film, and television: You can trace elements in the work of many great modern directors, from Quentin Tarantino to Guillermo del Toro, back to Grand Guignol.
Every horror story needs a victim, and Paula (Anna Mouglalis) has been the victim more times than she can count. She has been stabbed, shot, beheaded, raped, and murdered for the enjoyment of Parisian theatergoers, and playing the role of the eternal victim has made her quite famous. While her fame has drawn adulation, it has also drawn sinister infatuation. When a copycat criminal perpetrates real-world crimes based on Paula’s gruesome stage fantasies, she is forced to think about what responsibility she might have and if she will soon become a real-life victim.
Behind the crime story, there is the story that is seemingly required to unfold in any film about the theater: Can the Grand Guignol survive in the face of calls for censorship, tight financial circumstances, and of course, the coming rise of the cinema? This arc is far less interesting than the murder-mystery plot and has been tackled with greater depth elsewhere. Cradle Will Rock, The Producers, and Birdman have taken on the realities of the theater more compellingly on film, and Slings and Arrows has done it with more heart on television. In this well-trodden territory, The Most Assassinated Woman in the World has little to add and seems unsure of what if wants to say.
Thankfully, the film spends more time on its gruesome moments than it does hand-wringing about the fall of the theater. Mouglalis, though unfamiliar to American audiences, is a veteran of the French screen, and her smokey-voiced, world-weary performance makes her the perfect French leading lady. She endures the grimmest and bloodiest moments of the proceedings with a charming detachment that most American actors would never consider and livens up the film whenever she is given a close-up. Watching her die again and again is a pleasure.
Even when Mouglalis is asked to deliver on-the-nose lines like, “Dying onstage keeps me alive,” she maintains a sharp vibrancy to her performance than all but blows her other actors off-screen. In the moments when she is absent, she is dearly missed.
Unfortunately, the film’s technical ambitions don’t match Mouglalis’ efforts. European films that reach American soil are known for their technical mastery and narrative daring. This film offers neither. Director Franck Ribiere and writer James Charkow take a paint-by-numbers approach that feels particularly stale whenever Mouglalis isn’t on-screen. With the exception of a few exterior scenes that employ standard slasher film misdirection, the filmmaking is rarely elevated beyond the level of a pedestrian TV movie.
The acting is equally uninspired. Performers onstage tend to give far too much for a filmed performance and the characters outside the theater fall short in the other direction, delivering subdued, workmanlike efforts at best. The leading man, Jean (Niels Schneider), who plays a journalist who takes an interest in the crime spree, is a particularly weak point of the pedestrian cast, flattening the action into a dull paste whenever he appears.
One element that does not disappoint is the practical effects. The special makeup effects of Jean-Christophe Spadaccini, and the visual effects team comprised of Guillaume Pondard, Gael Durant, Cedri Decottignies, and Dave Decottignies, deserve special recognition. Just as the makeup team from Suicide Squad took home an Oscar, these people helped create a vision of Grand Guignol for the 21st century that is nothing short of astonishing. Good work deserves recognition even in weak films, and this group leaves you wishing you had a ticket to their theater.
There is an interesting story that could have been plotted amid the missteps of The Most Assassinated Woman in the World. Paula clearly has some discomforts as the dead woman onstage who inspires the deaths of women offstage. We never quite understand what they are. The most interesting moment of the film, our introduction to Paula, where she explains with weary confidence how many times she has been killed, is never followed up. There is some comment to be made on our present moment through the lens of the once beloved gross-out genre of Grand Guignol, something that connects our historic fascination with dead, pretty women with the current moment, but this film is not sure what that might be.
This absence of thematic commitment verges on malfeasance at the end of the film when what was previously just clumsy veers into problematic territory. Without spoiling things, let’s just say that this is not a parable for the Me Too moment after all.
The theater has lessons to teach us. Hundreds of years of storytelling and performance came before film and television, and there is something visceral and beautiful about live performance that even the best films can’t replicate. Sadly, The Most Assassinated Woman in the World fails to capture any of what makes the theater special.
While the artists behind this film might love the theater, we will have to take their word for it.
Need more ideas? Here are our Netflix guides for the best war movies, documentaries, anime, indie flicks, true crime, food shows, LGBT movies, gangster movies, Westerns, film noir, and movies based on true stories streaming right now. There are also sad movies guaranteed to make you cry, weird movies to melt your brain, old movies when you need something classic, and standup specials when you really need to laugh. Or check out Flixable, a search engine for Netflix.
Brenden Gallagher is a politics reporter and cultural commentator. His work has been published by Motherboard, Complex, and VH1. He’s the co-founder of Beer Money Films, an indie production company. Based in Los Angeles, he works in television drama as a writers assistant.