If you ever wondered where the term “Grand Guignol,” used to describe the bloody and macabre, over-the-top-horror, came from, here it is.
If you ever speculated who might have been the original “scream queen,” long before Jamie Leigh Curtis, let us meet Paula Maxa, “The Most Assassinated Woman in the World.”
This gorgeous and gory French period piece is a thriller that uses Le Theatre du Grand Guignol as its setting, and the real Paula Maxa as its stalking victim.
Director Franck Ribière, who managed some chills with the little-seen “The Oxford Murders” some years back, loses himself in milieu and menace here, He wallows in foggy, crimson-colored production design and theater history. His screenwriter invents a back-story for Maxa, a reporter interested in learning that story and how it might connect with “The Montmartre Murders” which “the fanatics” in Paris in 1932 are sure were inspired by the nightly slaughter on the stage of the former chapel in Pigalle, on the Rue Chaptal in Paris.
Anna Mouglalis (“Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky”) is the smokey-voiced Paula, who narrates (in French, with English subtitles) that she has been “beaten, martyred, sliced to bits, crushed…vaporized, drained of my blood, impaled, hung, buried alive” etc. and become “The Most Assassinated Woman in the World.”
People, the resident playwright Andre du Lorde (Michel Fau) declares, “stand outside the theater every night, just to hear her scream.”
We meet her as she acts in “Murder in the Madhouse,” in which her eye is gauged out, geysers of blood spraying the audience.
“It needs to spurt further,” Andre gripes to the prop master (Jean-Michel Balthazar), the “real” genius behind this theater of blood.
Jean (Niels Schneider) is the handsome son of a count, a reporter for Le Petit Journal, assigned to write about the Grand Guignol, to make the case that the city’s murderers go there for inspiration. Picketers harangue those attending their shows, pleading that “this den of debauchery” must be closed, “for our children, our families, for FRANCE!”
Paula is cynical, aloof, all but dismissing Jean when they meet. But he noses around her dressing room and finds a note — “I love watching you die, night after night. Soon I will kill you.”
His interviews turn into dates (he takes her to see the Michael Curtiz film “Doctor X”), and rising concern. There’s something more than theater going on in that Theatre.
The actors complain of the taste of the fake blood. Could it be…?
Fanatical fans have a little too much access to backstage.
And the threats? They start showing up at Jean’s newspaper desk as well.
One of the delights of the script is the way it blends the real history of the theatre with this fictional story. Andre du Lorde really did collaborate with with psychologist Alfred Binet to create shows that pushed viewers’ buttons, perhaps even toyed with the mental state of the actors.
They really did keep a “doctor” (fake) in the house every night to handle all the fainting.
The shows presented here blend the macabre with touches that the contemporary Luigi Pirandello (“Six Characters in Search of an Author”), whose bizarre, psychological plays prefigured the later Theatre of the Absurd, would embrace as his own.
The narrative is less interesting in a general sense, lumbering towards an “Is the real murderer the fellow so obviously tagged as that?” and “Will Paula escape or be murdered?” posited for the sake of suspense.
Schneider and his character have a callow prettiness that brings little to the film. Jean is underdeveloped, underplayed.
But Mouglalis has a magnificent face, demeanor voice for this character, world-weary, living only for the “thea-TUH.”
“Dying on stage keeps me alive…Frightening people is as interesting as making them laugh or cry.”
The milieu that Franck Ribière so revels in features onstage guillotines, throat slittings and surgeons behaving badly, clever props and effect gimmicks ,and offstage a cellist provides musical effects as sexual shenanigans go on among cast, crew and well-heeled audience members in the wings.
Stick around through the credits as a postscript reveals a little about the “real” Guignol and its most famous star.
Just don’t expect much from the mystery or any novelty in the villain or the murders. Jason and Michael Myers and Jamie Leigh surpassed those decades ago.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA
Credits:Directed by Franck Ribière , script by Vérane Frédiani and David Murdoch. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:42