“This story is based on true events from the imagined life of Fernande Grudet, aka Madame Claude” reads a title card opening the second feature biopic of the legendary mid-century French brothel owner. Claude is then shown preparing herself and her girls for a night of seizing power from the inside. Mingling with French and international political and cultural elite, her empire seems solid and her influence unimpeachable – but one girl from the upper classes threatens to derail her carefully constructed existence.

Verheyde’s film balances the broad strokes of Claude’s biography with invention in the form of interpersonal, intimate drama and the perils of sex work among the upper class. Making no claim to fact or authenticity helps the film build momentum through character interactions rather than Wikipedia highlights. The third act, however, gives way to a checklist of her downfall and loses some of the early humanity.

Throughout its anti-heroine’s high and lows, Madame Claude hesitates on bold statements to varying effectiveness. The hampered conclusion feels passive and stilted. However, in the film’s opening minutes, Claude states that she aimed to become the “queen of whores” to avoid the victimhood she felt inevitable in her womanhood in mid-century French power circles. Madame Claude leaves this assertion open, developed through hers and her workers’ unsensationalised interactions with the clients she calls “friends.” This strong move shows rather than forces the personal successes and institutional failures of this mission.

Rocher unites Claude’s brusque business-like attitude to As Sidonie – the prostitute who sells herself as Claude’s final ticket into high society and marks the beginning of her fall – Marillier demarcates her confidence by birth and the ruthlessness she later develops.

A slick soundtrack, stylish production design, and magnetic central performances make Madame Claude an enthralling, if ultimately too safe, two hours.  



CAST: Karole Rocher, Garance Marillier, Roschdy Zem, Pierre Deladonchamps, Liah O’Prey, Paul Hamy, Mylène Jampanoï, Hafsia Herzi, Regina Anikiy, Annabelle Belmondo, Joséphine de La Baum

DIRECTOR: Sylvie Verheyde

WRITER: Sylvie Verheyde

SYNOPSIS: Madame Claude owns the most popular brothel for France’s elite, but one newcomer may bring her system crashing down.