A Slow-Paced Biographical Drama
“There are two things that people will always pay for: food and sex.” These are the words the infamous Fernande Grudet aka. Madame Claude was thought to have said in her lifetime. It’s certainly an interesting perspective, and something this movie leans into for the duration of this slow-paced biographical picture.
Armed with strong themes, beautiful set design and decent acting, Madame Claude has all the ingredients to be a sure-fire hit. Unfortunately, the film is also hampered by a painfully slow pace that at times flatlines this film into submission.
Beginning in 1968, Madame Claude begins with Fernande Grudet at the top of her game. She’s head of a flourishing prostitution business, giving her power over both the French political and criminal worlds.
Molding these girls into the perfect workers, Claude wastes little time exerting her dominance, with an opening act that wastes absolutely no time getting us accustomed to the trials and tribulations these girls have to endure.
At the center of this is Claude’s “favourite” girl Sidonie, a quiet but feisty girl who’s haunted by a horrific incident when she was a child. Forced to confront this head-0n, Sidonie accompanies Claude through many of the film’s murkier moments, usually revolving around this madame juggling dangerous and influential clients.
Giving her a safety net against some of the nastier characters that show up is her position working as an informant. Cozying up with the police, Claude essentially enables her own protection – although as they say, all good things must come to to an end.
As one may expect from a picture like this, there’s a lot of sex and erotica but it works so well to show this line of work is just that – work. Sure it can be pleasurable but more often than not, these girls are forced to grin and bear their clients.
The sombre and emotionless expressions on the girls’ faces during these acts is telling unto itself, and the abundance of close-up shots really helps hammer this home.
Alongside that, some of the movie’s more emotionally charged and dramatic scenes occur late on, which is annoyingly when the film picks up pace and rockets through the later parts of Grudet’s life. The final act in particular jumps ahead 20 years, ending with a quaint reflection on what’s come before.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, Madame Claude does sometimes feel like a 101 on how to run a prostitutition business rather than a genuinely deep, thoughtful construction of Grudet’s rise and fall.
The biggest problem with Madame Claude though is its pace. The movie sags quite badly during the middle chapters, and other times dialogue between characters linger on for far too long. Despite some slick camera work during these moments, there’s a real feeling that this could have benefited from some quicker edits just to ease out some of the slower moments.
Flaws and all, Madame Claude is certainly an interesting biographical drama, armed with some strong themes. Ideas around empowerment, femininity and the patriarchy are all clear to see, but they’re never expressed in a way that feels overbearing or forced. Garance Marillier is the real star here though and her performance as Sidonie in particular is enough to elevate this picture above mediocrity.
Madame Claude is an interesting but flawed drama held back by glacial pacing. The characters are well written though and there’s definitely some stand-out moments across the 110 minute run-time. If you can go in with an open mind and not compare it to the 1977 picture of the same name, Madame Claude certainly offers up enough to make it worth a watch.