‘Madame Claude’ movie review: Wearisome retelling of the French icon’s rise and fall from grace

The biopic falls flat on its face, lacking the gravitas or attention to details necessary in painting a realistic cinematic portrait of this iconic woman

Madame Claude’s notoriety as a brothel keeper for the Parisian elite was at its peak from the swinging 1960s to the mid-70s. The “Lady pimp of the nation” had among her star-studded clientele list, the likes of John F. Kennedy, Marlon Brando and the Shah of Iran. And yet, Sylvie Verheyde’s latest Netflix biopic on her decides to systematically peel away the layers of farcical glamour engulfing her life and persona, to reveal a personality that is in constant conflict with itself.

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“I realised very early that most men treat us like whores. I decided to be the queen of the whores. To use our bodies as arms and as armour, to never suffer again..,” says an opening voiceover sequence by Fernande Grudet (Madame Claude’s real name). Soon, the viewers are introduced to her world of shady undertakings, where intelligence on the sexual proclivities of French ministers can be exchanged for immunity against law enforcement and the loyalty of known criminals can be bought for envelopes stuffed with crisp banknotes.

And yet, it is in the inner turmoil brewing inside Madame Claude’s psyche that ends up devouring the world that she so meticulously crafted for herself.

The middle-aged Grudet has a chip on her shoulder. Hailing from a humble background, she uses her profession to navigate through the upper echelons of the French social stratum. However, met with opposition from people envious of her meteoric rise, she assumes a frustrated tone of credulity and despondence, distancing herself from people who support her and enraging those who want to see her fall.

Karole Rocher as Madame Claude is believable, portraying the French icon as an emotionally vulnerable being, grappling hard with intimacy issues while trying to keep her business afloat.

She is complemented by Garance Marrilier’s Sidonie, a daughter of a French diplomat who was raped by her father when she was seven, and eventually turned into a sex worker.

Sidonie’s interactions with Madame Claude make for some of the best moments in this Netflix production, shedding light on the inner workings of an escort service as viewed from a feminine perspective. Roshdy Zem as the notorious French Gangster Jo Attia is the only male character that has sizeable screen time and presence, and shines as the goon who protects defenceless women against wanton acts of violence.

Madame Claude

  • Director: Sylvie Verheyde
  • Cast: Karole Rocher, Roschdy Zem, Garance Marillie
  • Duration: 1 hour 54 minutes
  • Storyline: In 1960s Paris, brothel keeper Madame Claude’s influence extends beyond the world of sex work — until an affluent young woman threatens to change everything

The soundtrack borrows heavily from the music of the post-war era and fits in magnificently with the lifestyle of Madame Claude’ girls as they go about their business in the fabled nightclub Pastel, serenading their clientele with groomed elegance.

However, the film as a biopic falls flat on its face, lacking the gravitas or attention to details necessary in painting a realistic cinematic portrait of this iconic Frenchwoman. This can be attributed to the dreary sub-plots and lack of effective character development. So much so, that a person not too familiar with the central subject of the film might be left flabbergasted from the get-go.

Madame Claude tries to be too many things at the same time — blending in elements of psychological thriller and film, and noir laced with a fictional version of the central character’s story — the final product becomes a muddled concoction of frivolous introspection into the life of a self-made hustler.

Even the dime-a-dozen lovemaking scenes seem insignificant, exuding a quality of raunchiness, but does little else to enhance the build-up to the story before its unimpressive conclusion.

And apart from the music, not much is inoculated in the production to recreate effectively, the bygone era of the 60s, which was as colourful as it was fraught with tension. Instead what we get is a haphazard depiction of a turbulent time, benefitting from nifty camerawork and good screenwriting, but ultimately harmed by the lackadaisical nature of the central plot.

Thus, for the uninitiated, this might not be a nice cinematic experience to undergo, but people aware of the chain of events as portrayed in the movie can give it a watch, if only to indulge in pointing out the flaws.

Madame Claude is currently streaming on Netflix

 

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