The prettiness of vice

On Netflix's Madame Claude

“There are two things that people will always pay money for – food and sex,” says Madame Claude in her autobiography. “And I wasn't any good at cooking.”

Pay good money they did. Known as the Queen of Sex, Madame Claude kept the most infamous and high-class brothel in Paris in the 1960s and 70s. Her little black book is said to have included JFK, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Pablo Picasso, Colonel Gaddafi, high-ranking Mafiosi. This means her ‘appointments’ were rich pickings for Profumo-era pillow talk and Mme Claude managed to stay out of trouble for as long as she did by becoming a police informant. A crackdown by a judge in 1976 changed her fortunes, and she served prison time twice: once for tax evasion and once for procurement. Her life and, ahem, work is the subject of a new Netflix film, Madame Claude, starring Karole Rocher in the titular role. 

Mme Claude’s philosophy, the key to her success, was to “make vice pretty” – to offer a sexual “experience” that didn’t feel like it was paid for. In the series, Johns are referred to not as “clients” but as “friends”, and Mme Claude is said to have loathed the word “prostitution”. Her girls, often students of dance or painting, models who just didn’t quite make the cut, were sought-after for their refined air (JFK supposedly sought out a preppy Jackie Kennedy lookalike, only hotter). If they weren’t noble by birth, she re-fashioned them into upper-class ‘swans’, issuing new names, giving finishing school-style training and decking them out in Dior (they had to repay the bills, of course). Early scenes in Madame Claude reflect this process, showing the madam examine two new recruits, forcing them to undergo rigorous inspections of their bodies, their manners, their personal hygiene (“show me how you wash yourself”, she instructs one hopeful ingénue, ushering her to the bidet). 

In the film, Mme Claude finds the perfect new recruit in vibrant and erudite young aristocrat Sidonie (no elevated new name necessary). Asked why she should be hired, Sidonie (Garance Marillier) tells Mme Claude that she is “the same as them [the ‘friends’]. You don’t need to educate me, teach me their ways, I already know them.” In other words, unlike the other girls, Sidonie doesn’t have to perform class drag. But for all her pedigree, Sidonie is a loose cannon, with a voracious appetite for booze and fags, men and women, pills and powders. Though she quickly becomes Mme Claude’s right-hand woman, she is also her counterpoint: free-spirited, in tune with the burgeoning counterculture of the sixties, hedonistic, messy, decadent, pulsating with youthfulness and dynamic verve. She breathes much-needed life into the film, offering an antidote to the buttoned-up faux-aristocracy of Mme Claude who, dressed in well-tailored skirtsuits and sensible heels, is charming but cold, distant and sober, believes “love is a disease”. 

Mme Claude has been the subject of numerous French films, most notably a 1977 production by erotica maestro Just Jaeckin (how’s that for nominative determinism?), by then already known for softcore classics Emmanuelle and Story of O. Starring Françoise Fabian and Klaus Kinski, and with a very porno-chic soundtrack by Serge Gainsbourg, it focuses on the political intrigue that came from Mme Claude’s informant status. Social mores have come a long way since 1977, though, and so it’s no surprise that 2021’s female-directed recharge offers more than a sexploitation thriller exploring the male-dominated world of politics. Director Sylvie Verheyde has said in interviews that her film is an attempt to reverse Claude’s prettification of vice, revealing the dark side Mme Claude worked so hard to conceal with her painstakingly constructed public image. The film tries to dig deeper into some of the moral failings and contradictory flaws of Mme Claude, revealing her ruthlessness and abusive streak, and it goes some way to achieving this – aided by Rocher’s fantastically terse and tightly-wound performance – but it could have gone further: despite its early promise, the film largely peters out after the first hour.

On the surface, the world’s oldest profession has a lot to offer the camera – crime and sex have strong cinematic allure. Throw in some stylish period fashion (the late 60s/early 70s in this case), high profile clients (“Marlon Brando will be here in 15 minutes!!”) and an espionage scandal and you’d think Madame Claude would be all set. Yet surprisingly few films are successful at rendering sex work on screen: transactional sex doesn’t sizzle on film like romantic sex does. This is perhaps why Pretty Woman is the most commercially successful hooker film despite eliciting much eye-rolling from actual sex workers – it’s just a conventional love story with added latex boots.

In Bad Taste’s reckoning, the best sex work movies are neo-noirs from the 70s and 80s that focus more on suspense than sex: think 1976’s Taxi Driver or 1971’s Klute, starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland. Like Madame Claude, Klute deals with the nefarious overlap between a high-class escort’s “little black book” and the criminal underworld, and Fonda snagged an Oscar for her clipped and icy turn as Bree. The film is tense, slow-moving, and despite Fonda’s evident sex appeal (and iconic haircut!!), it doesn’t cash in on the aesthetic tropes of hookerdom – spanking paddles, suspenders, wads of cash – instead showing her demurely dressed and going about her day-to-day business, occasionally making arrangements or negotiating with a client. The film’s most titillating content is a voice recording of Bree speaking to one of her clients on the phone – “what turns me on is that I have a good imagination and I like pleasing… do you mind if I take my sweater off?” – her disembodied voice carrying even more erotic charge on tape. By leaving the sex mostly off-screen, Klute has mystery at its core and succeeds in an atmospheric rendering of both the seedy underbelly of New York and the libidinal unknown. It’s somehow both chilling and sexy.

Madame Claude, on the other hand, is easy on the eye, offering a bounty of visual riches: pink ostrich feathers, cat’s eyeliner, coiffed updos, pert butts and silk négligée. This is all enjoyable, but doesn’t best serve the director’s intention of ‘unprettifying’ the vice Mme Claude ‘prettified’. Verheyde has said the film’s sex scenes are “deliberately unerotic” and mechanical, highlighting their transactional nature and peeling back the glamour of Claude’s constructed artifice. But if this is the director’s approach, this darker, more hollow aesthetic needs to be continued through the rest of the film (a la film noir). Instead, its freewheeling sexual panache runs out of steam and enters a more maudlin trajectory that fails to keep us engaged. If Madame Claude wants to be a pensive psychological study, it could take a few cues from Klute’s sense of mystery and remove. And if it wants to be a sumptuous shagfest, then it could just recreate its 1977 erotic forerunner. Instead, it plays both hands at the same time and ends up a little confused – unsure of whether or not it wants to seduce us.

~ Rosa xo

Madame Claude is on Netflix here.

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TIME FOR AN AMARO?

A series of quick-fire recommendations to help you digest

📺 A TV gem I somehow missed last year – We Are Who We Are, directed by Luca Guadagnino. Following the lives of queer teenagers living on an American military base in Veneto, it has all the cinematic flair and artful brooding you’d expect from the Call Me By Your Name director, plus a soundtrack by Dev Hynes

🎞 1992’s Death Becomes Her has just been added to Netflix and its a camp delight, with Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep as arch-rivals vying for eternal youth

📚 One for the fashion nerds: I’m reading Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History by Stanford Law School professor and style aficionado Richard Thompson Ford. It covers a lot of ground – roughly from the late medieval period to the present day – looking at what dress codes forbid (e.g. Renaissance sumptuary laws) and what this tells us about the power of fashion

👁 Smaller galleries are re-opening in London from Monday, and I couldn’t be more excited. Despite having curated two of them, I look forward to not seeing the words “online exhibition” again for a very long time

🎶 This overlooked disco banger, sent by a friend with the promise of future dancing

Leave your own culture recs in the comments. Ciao for now!! xo

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