Mamade Claude isn’t much more than shallow period dress-up and empty provocation.
Set, for the most part, in the final tumultuous years of the Swinging Sixties, Sylvie Verheyde’s Madame Claude follows the life and career of one of the most infamous French icons of the twentieth century: the eponymous high-class, Parisian brothel keeper, née Fernande Grudet, whose clients frequently were among some of the most prominent celebrities and politicians of the time. The film is a re-imagined fiction of the rise and fall of a very ambitious and self-made woman whose voice-over narration here explicitly declares her pivotal contention in Madame Claude’s opening stretch: “I realized very early that most men treat us like whores. I decided to be the queen of the whores.” It’s certainly a controversial, loaded statement to extrapolate, but there are more crucial problems with Verheyde’s latest effort that can be traced somewhere other than her dark heroic portrait of the “Lady pimp of the nation.” Immediately notable is how poorly executed the representation of the film’s specific époque and milieu is here, and it’s difficult to find any authenticity, as the impression of period is merely reflected through uninspired clothing, make-up, and hairstyle. Likewise, the texture and character of Paris — the film’s primary setting — is communicated only through some vivid, clichéd iconography: predictably, and mostly, via a couple of shots where the Eiffel tower is noticeably fixed deep in the background. This superficiality is made worse when considering how unbelievable and unrelatable a number of the characters are, particularly Madame Claude herself, as either historical or fictional entities. And indeed, here, it’s not a matter of asynchronicity or omni-temporality, the likes of which we’re intended to experience in a film like Bertrand Bonello’s The House of Tolerance — and given the final product here, it seems quite unlikely that Verheyde even bothered to examine Bonello’s film, let alone consider similarly-themed masterworks such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai, Sohrab Shahid Saless’ Utopia, or Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame.
Relying distastefully and implicitly on a range of medium shots and close-ups — without using this mode to build any real continuity between the characters from one situation to the next, and certainly without penetrating into their multi-layered interiorities — the entire cookie-cutter visual strategy of Madame Claude does almost nothing but omit aesthetic and perceptive details from viewers’ eyes. It becomes even more ludicrous when, in the same manner, the film announces Marlon Brando’s presence in the bordello without depicting him, and made worse when it shows him vaguely from behind, without even a trace of the look or feel of the legendary actor. Given its deficits elsewhere, it’s no surprise that the film leans heavily on its titular character’s narrations and dialogues to guide it, but this also can come across as contradictory, such as when the madame says, “I don’t have the time for love”, just as she falls for the first guy (Paul Hamy) who suddenly approaches her in a bar. Admittedly, this tact works better, minimally, during scattered scenes where the film’s vintage soundtrack works in tandem with sequences of arranged figures and bodily movements: dancing, moving fluidly through a frame, or even just lazing in a relaxed pose. That’s to say, these moments work best, and it’s enough to wish that Verheyde was attuned to these compositions instead of rendering such moments as mere interlude filler. In the absence of a truly engaging narrative and well-developed characterization, the impression is that the film’s intervals are shoehorned with some would-be provocative but ultimately shallow and empty depictions of nudity, sex, and occasional violence — and given the lack of substance here, it’s not a stretch to view Verheyde’s camerawork as part of the “male gaze” that she ostensibly intends to criticize. Meanwhile, as the political thriller subplot becomes further bolded, even that element perturbs the central plot with its hasty rhythm. In some ways, then, acting can be the saving grace of films like this, and while Karole Rocher and Garance Marillier admirably do their best to embody the underdeveloped characters of Madame and Sidonie, even the final phone call they share fails to do anything except add a bow of sentimentality to the whole thing. Most sympathy is felt toward Liah O’Prey in the role of the timid and fragile Virginie, who falls prey to the exploits of Grudet and the rapacious apparatus of her enterprise, but that is much too little, too late. And so, while it concerns itself with “the oldest profession in the world,” Madame Claude is also a faux-twee period drama — you’re not far off if you think of it as a flirtatiously historical and more somber sister project to Netflix’s Emily in Paris — that all too readily trades in shallow, banal desires without presenting any profound affection or an ounce of sincerity. In other words, it’s very much a no-strings-attached experience from beginning to end.
You can currently stream Sylvie Verheyde’s Madame Claude on Netflix.