Madame Claude movie review: Sagging pace, loose ends no match for real life-thrills of France's infamous brothel-keeper
The film lies somewhere in the smoky zone between a film noir, fictionalised biography and a very complex psychological character study.
It’s mid-century Paris and we are inside a ritzy salon that’s throbbing with the energy of what seems like a party prep. It’s the birthday of one of Madam Claude’s girls and no effort is being spared to ensure a heady night ahead, strung between thongs and champagne and sex and secrets. The life of the infamous French brothel-keeper Fernande Grudet, aka Madame Claude, has been fodder for both screen and literature for years now, and this is the second biographical adaptation on cinema, after Just Jaeckin’s 1977 erotic thriller by the same name.
The Netflix production, helmed by French director Sylvie Verheyde, however, is no erotica. And it isn’t a thriller either, even though Netflix slots it as one. In fact, in Verheyde’s film, the sex is deliberately unerotic. The message is clear – these women are working; they are the cogs running the world’s most established, and up until a point, invincible nexus of sex and politics. All under the hawk-eyed supervision of Grudet, a shrewd micro-manager that charges 30 per cent commission, and vets everything from vital stats to the hygiene levels of privates in her girls, before sending them off to men belonging to French and international political and cultural elite. Names like Marlon Brando, John F Kennedy, the Shah of Iran, among many others, are freely tossed about in giggly gossip the girls engage in, during rare work-breaks.
The narrative voiceover of Grudet, played by Karole Rocher, provides scraps of context to what unfolds on screen. We get some insight into the modus operandi of “madame France” who came from nowhere and cracked the code to high-society bedrooms using sex as her only weapon. In her role as an informant, she trades salacious secrets and dirty pictures of men in power for protection for herself and her girls. This smart and discreet empire seems unshakable until Grudet takes in a girl, Sydonie, from the upper classes and things begin to go off the rails. The story is largely told through the growing and changing dynamics of these two characters, played by Rocher and Garance Marillier.
The film’s disclaimer reads: based on true events from the imagined life of Fernande Grudet. Skirting the periphery of authencity helps Verheyde develop fine character studies. Rocher’s Grudet is an anti-heroine that has an almost male energy in her ruthlessness and power. When her girls return from an encounter with disturbing signs of assault, she has one question: ‘Did they pay you?’ Her concern never extends to anything beyond external damages. “Your white skin bruises easily, but it’ll be gone in two days,” she tells one of her girls. Appearances are everything in Claude’s world. “Animals sweat, men perspire, women settle for feeling hot,” she says when a girl cribs about sweating.
Rocher plays Madam Claude with a complex intensity and an awe-inspiring majesty, walking the line between rage and pain, and salesmanship and sexuality. Her rare, secret teary outbursts, when things are falling apart, are some of the finest moments in Rocher’s performance. It’s thanks to the actress’s craft that we never stop being intrigued by this middle-aged, lonely, and largely ambivalent woman.
Sydonie is nothing like Claude and yet she is. She is an aristocrat, young, makes no bones about her sexuality and a total trainee in the trade. But she has a fierce determination, that almost makes her Claude’s alter-ego, who won’t stop at anything. And when these two forces meet, there begins the corrosion of madam’s iron-fisted empire. While Marillier seems perfectly cast as this perplexing poker-faced character, the writing lets her down. Sydonie remains too ambiguous and loosely stitched to appear convincing, especially when she confesses her love for Claude. Their relationship bordering on that of a mentor and a mentee, and sometimes, a mother and surrogate daughter, has several shades but none that draws the audience in. Individually, however, they remain the pillars the story rests on.
Madam Claude deftly tackles themes of class, femininity and patriarchy, without being overbearing. At the heart of it, this is a story of a clash of classes – no matter how many millions one mints, or how strong a vault of blackmailing secrets they build, in the end they will be squished by the muscles of hierarchy.
Unfortunately, for the film, the collapse of Claude in the third act, runs parallel to the narrative’s atrophy. There are disparate elements of a thriller, a few nail-biting close-shaves, but the editing remains uneven – moments that should have lingered are short-lived, while certain sub-plots remain weary for wear. The political reality of France in the late 1960s, on the brink of Women’s Liberation movement and Woodstock free sex era, needed more establishing to join the dots better. Chance mentions in snatches of conversation remain too vague to build context, especially for audiences outside of France. The glacial pace further dilutes the buildup of what could have been a taut thriller.
Despite the loose ends, the film does contain some fine moments. The soundtrack eases the audience into a mid-century Parisian mood, making up ever so slightly for the inadequacies in the historical context. A standout scene is one where Erik Satie’s hauntingly melancholic Gymnodie plays to a disturbing boudoir sequence. Nudity in the film is treated clinically, just the way Claude did in her trade. The film lies somewhere in the smoky zone between a film noir, fictionalised biography and a very complex psychological character study. For the uninitiated, Madam Claude opens a few windows into story of Grudet. But a sagging pace and too many loose ends are no match for the breathless thrills in the real life of France’s most unforgettable brothel-keeper.
Madame Claude is streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here —
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