Based on the life of Fernande Grudet, more commonly known as “Madame Claude”, Sylvie Verheyde’s biopic follows the brothel-keeper’s life through a period of excessive success to her eventual fall from grace. Claude (Karole Rocher) is at the centre of the Paris underworld in the late 60s, managing over 300 sex workers whose clients (or “friends”, as she insists the girls call them) include ambassadors, diplomats and American presidents. When she hires Sidonie (Garance Marillier), the middle-class daughter of a French minister who insists her insight is valuable among the upper-class “friends”, Claude trains her as her protegée.
The bordello madame embodies the attributes of a doting mother and a ruthless pimp. She teaches her girls how to wash themselves and talks them down following particularly cruel clients, but she never shies from a slap or a tough word when needed. She works closely with the French police so that her operations are not interfered with, but as the 70s roll in, the iron sanctum of Paris’s underworld begins to fall, and Claude is closer to losing the empire she has built from the ground up.
The main downfall of Madame Claude is that it is much too long: there is about half an hour in total of lengthy shots of zoomed-in women, dancing, smoking and drinking. It drags out an already premature narrative and makes the viewer impatient, yearning for an exciting plot point that doesn’t come.
The acting is the high point, with Rocher’s portrayal of Claude carrying all the intimidation, ruthlessness and power of a successful female gangster – but somewhere in her performance she also subtly portrays the deep loneliness and vulnerability of a woman fighting for her place in a male-dominated world. Marillier’s performance as a young woman mistreated everywhere she turns, but attempting to maintain a cool, careless demeanour, is one of the main sources of humanity in the film, resonating with the modern audience.
The direction is noticeably shaky at times, as if the camera forgets the trajectory of its subject. Likewise, the editing is occasionally a little too curt, which snaps the audience out of the dream-like flow. However, Madame Claude is objectively gorgeous to look at, from the endless beautiful women in silk, fur and chiffon to the backdrop of the timeless glamour of 20th century Paris. But (as the film so aptly communicates) the good times don’t last forever.
Madame Claude is released on Netflix on 2nd April 2021.
Watch the trailer for Madame Claude here: