Film about France’s most famous brothel owner ‘Madame Claude’ premieres on Netflix

She was a salacious icon of 20th century Paris – the brothel-keeper to the stars – so it’s perhaps rather apt that Netflix‘s new film about ‘Madame Claude’ is filled with racy scenes of sex parties, full frontal nudity and bondage.

As the reigning Queen of Sex in the French capital between the 1960s and 1970s, the Madame, real name Fernande Grudet, offered a secret and forbidden sexual world to a famous client list which reportedly included John F. Kennedy, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Pablo Picasso and Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi.

She dubbed her group of girls her ‘swans’, who boasted beautiful, elegant looks, classy charms and were often from fine French families.

But in the latest telling, released on Netflix on April 2, the glamour in which her story was often shrouded in is stripped away to show a darker reality – showing unerotic sex used as a weapon to capture secrets from high-profile men. 

In just the first ten minutes of the film, viewers witness several racy scenes – including a girl stripping off in front of the Madame during an interview, before she is seen being intimate with a man for a ‘test’.

Elsewhere, the brothel owner (played by French actress Karole Rocher) helps teach a young woman how to properly clean her private parts, while later in the movie, a prostitute is seen being tied up.

Scroll down for video 

'Madame Claude' pictured in 1986

'Madame Claude' pictured in 1986

She was a salacious icon of 20th century Paris - the brothel-keeper to the stars - so it's perhaps rather apt that Netflix's new film about 'Madame Claude' (pictured in the film) is filled with scenes of aggressive sex, full frontal nudity and bondage

She was a salacious icon of 20th century Paris - the brothel-keeper to the stars - so it's perhaps rather apt that Netflix's new film about 'Madame Claude' (pictured in the film) is filled with scenes of aggressive sex, full frontal nudity and bondage

She was a salacious icon of 20th century Paris – the brothel-keeper to the stars – so it’s perhaps rather apt that Netflix’s new film about ‘Madame Claude’ (pictured right, in the film, and left, in real life) is filled with scenes of aggressive sex, full frontal nudity and bondage

As the reigning Queen of Sex in the French capital between the 1960s and 1970s, the Madame, real name Fernande Grudet, offered a secret and forbidden sexual world to a famous client list. Pictured, the Madame's girls in the film

As the reigning Queen of Sex in the French capital between the 1960s and 1970s, the Madame, real name Fernande Grudet, offered a secret and forbidden sexual world to a famous client list. Pictured, the Madame's girls in the film

As the reigning Queen of Sex in the French capital between the 1960s and 1970s, the Madame, real name Fernande Grudet, offered a secret and forbidden sexual world to a famous client list. Pictured, the Madame’s girls in the film

She dubbed her group of girls (pictured in the film) her 'swans', who boasted beautiful, elegant looks, classy charms and were often from fine French families

She dubbed her group of girls (pictured in the film) her 'swans', who boasted beautiful, elegant looks, classy charms and were often from fine French families

She dubbed her group of girls (pictured in the film) her ‘swans’, who boasted beautiful, elegant looks, classy charms and were often from fine French families

In her heyday, the mythology of Madame Claude was about more than sex, in which she herself claimed to have little interest.

Sex was a tool for the ruthless businesswoman: a route into high society and to freedom in a man’s world. ‘There are two things that people will always pay for: food and sex. I wasn’t any good at cooking,’ she famously said.

However, Grudet’s success did not last: she was twice convicted and imprisoned, first for tax evasion and then for a short-lived attempt to restart her prostitution racket in the 1990s.

She lived out her days in relative modesty in a small apartment on the south coast, estranged from her daughter, dying alone in 2015 at the age of 92.

Showing viewers just how ‘down to business’ the French film will get, Madame Claude opens with the brothel owner hosting a raucous party, filled with scantily clad women and professional men dressed in suits.

But in the latest telling, released on Netflix on April 2, the glamour in which her story was often shrouded in is stripped away to show a darker reality

But in the latest telling, released on Netflix on April 2, the glamour in which her story was often shrouded in is stripped away to show a darker reality

Pictured, one of the Madame's girls in the film during her racy scenes

Pictured, one of the Madame's girls in the film during her racy scenes

But in the latest telling, released on Netflix on April 2, the glamour in which her story was often shrouded in is stripped away to show a darker reality. Pictured, one of the Madame’s girls in the film during her racy scenes

In just the first ten minutes of the film, viewers witness several racy scenes (above) - including a girl stripping off in front of the Madame during an interview, before she is seen being intimate with a man for a 'test'

In just the first ten minutes of the film, viewers witness several racy scenes (above) - including a girl stripping off in front of the Madame during an interview, before she is seen being intimate with a man for a 'test'

In just the first ten minutes of the film, viewers witness several racy scenes (above) – including a girl stripping off in front of the Madame during an interview, before she is seen being intimate with a man for a ‘test’

She explains how she decided early on in her life that she would use sex as a weapon, building an entire empire by recruiting and training some 500 ‘Claudettes’ to provide expensive distraction for her clients, who would fork out a minimum of 10,000 franc a night (£8,423).

Revealed: Madame Claude’s ‘client list’ 

This is a non-exhaustive list of some of the famous clients Madame Claude claimed she procured women for during her career as a brothel owner: 

  • Elie de Rothschild – Banking magnate
  • Lord Mountbatten – Royal relative
  • John F. Kennedy – US President
  • Marlon Brando – Actor 
  • Muammar Gaddafi – Libyan leader
  • Rex Harrison – Actor
  • Gianni Agnelli – Automobile magnate  
  • Aristotle Onassis – Shipping magnate 
  • Marc Chagall – Artist 
  • Sammy Davies Jr – Musician 
  • Frank Sinatra – Singer  

She is believed to have procured women for countless French politicians and other magnates throughout the 1960s and 1970s, until she was arrested in 1977 for tax fraud. 

<!—->

Advertisement

Within minutes, audiences at home see the coldly efficient businesswoman interview a new recruit, Sidonie (played by Garance Marillier), and telling her to strip. 

Sidonie, who is then tested by being asked to sleep with a friend of the Madame’s before being placed with any clients, will later prove herself worthy of being Grudet’s right-hand woman. 

Alongside cold and clinical sex scenes, viewers witness the Madame’s ruthlessness, finding she has little concern for her girls beyond external damages.

Behind the scenes were ties to organised crime, a life of emotional misery and a near-pathological lack of scruples: Madame Claude, it emphasises, always made sure to get her 30 percent, even when the girls returned bruised and bloodied from a meet-up gone wrong. 

As such, when her girls return from an encounter with disturbing signs of assault, she has one question: ‘Did they pay you?’, before adding: ‘Your white skin bruises easily, but it’ll be gone in two days.’

‘There is the image of Madame Claude: of Paris, beautiful dresses and big hotels, power… What interested me was what was happening behind the scenes,’ director Sylvie Verheyde said.

‘Madame Claude built her mythology. She was a great liar, a fraud who said she wanted to “beautify vice”, which meant brushing all the ugliness under the carpet.

‘For my own mother, who came from a working class background and moved to Paris, Madame Claude was a role-model,’ said Verheyde.

‘I found that delusional, but actually, for a woman of her generation and her class, there were few successful female role-models with which to identify,’ she said.

The director’s new film stands in deliberate contrast to previous tellings, especially the erotic film of the same name from 1977, by ‘Emmanuelle’ director Just Jaeckin. 

Elsewhere, the brothel owner (played by French actress Karole Rocher, pictured) helps teach a young woman how to properly clean her private parts, while later in the movie, a prostitute is seen being tied up

Elsewhere, the brothel owner (played by French actress Karole Rocher, pictured) helps teach a young woman how to properly clean her private parts, while later in the movie, a prostitute is seen being tied up

Elsewhere, the brothel owner (played by French actress Karole Rocher, pictured) helps teach a young woman how to properly clean her private parts, while later in the movie, a prostitute is seen being tied up

In her heyday, the mythology of Madame Claude (pictured left, in the film) was about more than sex, in which she herself claimed to have little interest

In her heyday, the mythology of Madame Claude (pictured left, in the film) was about more than sex, in which she herself claimed to have little interest

In her heyday, the mythology of Madame Claude (pictured left, in the film) was about more than sex, in which she herself claimed to have little interest

‘I think our era is much more ready for the reality and to put an end to the stereotypes of those years,’ said Verheyde, who explained that the sex in her film is deliberately unerotic: ‘This isn’t love, they are working!’

The Madame’s part is played by Karole Rocher, known for hard-edged roles, particularly as a detective in hit French crime drama ‘Braquo’.

‘Female gangster roles are still pretty rare,’ said Rocher. ‘It’s interesting to play, for once, a female character that has this hate, this rage that we normally associate with men. A role that is so bitter, so unsympathetic, without being sexualised – I love it.’

As for Netflix, it will hope the film can build on the recent spell of success by shows such as ‘Call My Agent’, ‘The Bureau’ and ‘Baron Noir’ that have brought inevitable claims of a golden age for French TV.

The streaming platform had a major hit earlier this year with ‘Lupin’, the first time a French-language show had topped its chart worldwide.

‘Madame Claude’s swans’: How the girls chosen by the brothel-keeper to the stars were ‘fit, rather clever and slim’

‘Madame Claude’ hated the word ‘prostitution’, calling it ‘revolting and denigrating’, and instead dubbed her girls, who were from fine French families with brains and charm, ‘swans’.

The women working for Madame Claude’s network stood out from the others thanks to their luxurious wardrobe and beauty. 

French journalist Elisabeth Antébi was one of two women who infiltrated the selection process to become one of Madame Claude’s girls, called ‘Claudettes’, for an investigation in 1975.

She said : ‘We were fit, rather clever, we were 5’5, slim, brunettes: it matched the criteria, we were accepted.’

The Claudettes all had to be tall, because it was Grudet’s opinion that rich men preferred tall women, like they preferred mansions and big cars. 

It is also revealed that in order to work for Madame Claude, the girls had to go under the knife and tweak their appearance. 

No girl escaped this requirement – it was the pimp’s signature move, her way of ‘marking’ the women who worked for her, French newspaper Le Monde’s weekend magazine M le Mag explained.   

Grudet herself changed her appearances, because she believed she was ugly.  

French actress Francoise Fabian, who played Madame Claude in the 1975 eponymous movie about the pimp and met her several times described her as a ‘cold’ woman.

‘She absolutely despised men and even more women. For her, the former were wallets and the latter were holes,’ Fabian said. 

The actress went on to say Madame Claude was ‘terrifying’. Even Grudet’s former lawyer, Francis Szpiner, described her as an antipathetic character. 

‘She was a rather cold person, who was all about self-control and image, always dressed to the nines’, he said. 

‘She had one a way to be independent and to hold power in a world ruled by men, but she was not a feminist at all, she was even very traditional,’ he said.

He described her as an almost ‘masculine character,’ and added that she had a very high opinion of herself, and that she treated the women who worked for her with ‘severity’.

While she insisted she was discreet, it later emerged that Claude was providing French intelligence with information on her clients’ sexual proclivities.

By the 1970s, even Paris was no longer quite so indulgent towards a businesswoman like Madame Claude and, after several attempts to revive her operation, she spent her final decades living obscurely and with little money in Nice. 

She died aged 92 in 2015, drawing just six mourners to her funeral.

<!—->

Advertisement
More Stories
Woman, 37, appears in court accused of killing newborn baby boy and leaving his body in woodland