Madame Claude Movie Review: Lacklustre storytelling overshadows the good in this Netflix drama
Uninspiring writing, vague ideas and a poor third act spoil the better aspects of this Netflix drama
In 1960s Paris, Fernande Grudet a.k.a Madame Claude (Karole Rocher) is more than just a brothel keeper. She’s the queen of a glamourous empire that only members of the higher echelons of the society know of. She operates the cogs of a nexus that binds the worlds of sex, crime and politics. Here, information is currency. Given the kind of clientele she boasts of, all dealings happen covertly and off-the-frame most of the time. After all, no alarms are ringing when names like Marlon Brando, John F Kennedy, and the Shah of Iran are casually dropped. A word of gossip from this empire not only spreads like fire, but also hurts like it.
Sylvie Verheyde’s film, based on the imagined life of Madame Claude, begins with a voiceover that goes, “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.” We are then introduced to Sidonie (Garance Marillier), an upper-class woman and the daughter of the Foreign Affairs Minister, who joins Claude’s band of girls. The screenplay consists of three narratives – Claude's political battles; her trauma with her past and present; and Sidonie’s inner battles and rise as Claude’s right-hand.
Director: Sylvie Verheyde
Cast: Karole Rocher, Garance Marillier, Roschdy Zem
Streaming on: Netflix
Claude’s rise in the hierarchy is solely the result of her ironclad control, ruthless management, and stoic heart, and her past is very evident of the same. Sidonie’s presence brings newer shades to Claude’s existence. She even makes Claude speak about her insecurities and vulnerabilities. Claude becomes an interesting on-screen character who, at one moment, is clinging to her vulnerable self, and at another, doesn’t think twice before asking a battered and abused employee how much the client paid. Rocher shoulders this movie with her impressive portrayal as the titular character. Even after getting almost everything she aspired for, Claude's eyes spell her incompleteness.
In contrast, the writing of Sidonie’s character has several issues. Although Sidonie shares a close bond with Claude, there isn't enough exploration into their unique equation. Sidonie seems to be made from the same rock as Claude, but from a different world. While there are insights into the street-smartness of Claude from the way she finds out who seems to be cheating on her, we aren't sure of Sidonie's intelligence. The movie does explore Sidonie’s inner demons and inhibitions – with her sexuality and with her conflicted relationship with her father, an abuser — but it seems just not enough. Her anger seems right for the world and her monumental rise provides some gratification. However, the arc seems to end prematurely, and she ends up just aiding Claude’s story. This just doesn't do justice to Sidonie's quest.
Madame Claude is a film about a dying empire. When the chips fall, Claude struggles to grapple with reality. Her inner turmoil and issues with intimacy and friendship come hounding at her. With the fall of the empire, the storytelling takes a dip as well. There’s a good psychological theme at the heart of Madame Claude, but the film tries to be too many things at once and none of the themes sink in. The dialogues are very vague too.
It has to be mentioned that, as is to be expected of the subject, Madame Claude has many explicit sex scenes. These become an issue when some of them bear no real significance to how things unfold.
In the end, the film feels like a fictionalised showreel of Claude’s life. Though there is a coherent, chronological flow of events, the uninspiring writing of the sequences themselves is the biggest letdown. Somewhere, there is a sense of incompleteness – the same we see in the eyes of Madame Claude herself.