Life & Culture

Television review: Madame Claude

This Netflix offering has plenty of style...but not much else


Netflix has followed up the unexpected successes of French-made hits Call My Agent and Lupin with a biopic about Fernande Grudet — possibly the world’s most renowned brothel keeper.

In the 1960s the house of Madame Claude as she was known — which was actually a rambling apartment just off the Champs-Élysées — was where rich and famous men went for transactional sex. However, the facts of the host’s life prior to her career (she died in 2015 at the age of 92) are not exactly cast in stone.

Her own account says she was descended from aristocrats, educated in a convent and a Resistance fighter who was sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis. Another version holds that Claude’s father ran a snack bar in her home town of Angers; that his daughter never set foot in a convent and that the story about the concentration camp was an example of Claude self-mythologising.

Yet there are those, such as The Spectator’s High Life columnist Taki Theodoracopulos who are on record as saying they saw a concentration camp tattoo on her arm. What does not seem in doubt is that Claude’s clients amounted to an eye-wateringly influential list of the great and good of the time. The names attached to the goings and comings that occurred at chez Claude include John Kennedy, de Gaulle, Aristotle Onassis, more than one Rothschild, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Moshe Dayan and Muammar Gaddafi.

A consensus also seems to have formed that French intelligence had a keen interest in Claude’s establishment, not just because her clients included ministers in the French government but because of the foreign diplomats and agents who went there.

Whatever the truth, there is much material in Claude’s life with which to weave a satisfying tale of sex, scandal and intrigue. Yet despite copious amounts of female nudity, Sylvie Verheyde’s film is frustratingly coy when it comes to depicting actual events.

Karole Rocher plays the title role, her narration providing a soupçon of personal history. As a child her only friend was a goat, we learn. We also see Claude installing her resentful daughter and mother into a fashionable flat, apparently so she can have as little as possible to do with her family while she builds her business.

But there is no attempt to explain what compelled Claude to choose her line of work. And although Netflix’s graphic for the film takes the shape of a star of David, anyone inferring that Claude’s Jewishness features significantly — or at all — will be disappointed if not confused.

Other than a fleeting reference to John Kennedy, and a passing moment when Marlon Brando turns up (shot without seeing his face) the opportunity for celebrity spotting goes begging. In this biopic Verheyde is instead much stronger on the pic than she is on the bio, capturing the style of the time and something of its film-making techniques, but apparently with little research into the facts of Claude’s life.

With all those versions and rumours, this could have been a meditation on the nature of myth-making. But with poorly dubbed dialogue the result is an unintended parody of self-centred French cinema.

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