There was a time when I found myself repeatedly interviewing Dennis Hof. You might remember him as the owner of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch featured on HBO’s Cathouse. Beside interviewing him over the phone, I flew out twice to hang out at his brothel and mingle his Bunnies and a few of his famous friends. Over those years, I learned about his world of legalized prostitution (as recorded in my book Lessons From The Pimp). He’d hint at stories about his clients who varied from truckers cutting through Reno to extremely connected men who’d land their private helicopters on the property. There were stars and politicians that enjoyed the convenience and privacy that his brothel offered. This was a world where pleasures could be negotiated for a price. Since The Bunny Ranch was legal with a state license, there was no chance of the cops raiding the joint in the middle of the night. Clients used credit cards. Hof enjoyed being able to operate above board since there were plenty of pimps and brothels run around the world that weren’t legit. Madame Claude became infamous in Paris for running her high-class prostitution ring in that catered to the rich, famous and powerful in the ’60s and ’70s. Her story was so compelling, the cinematic adaptation of her autobiography brought together two of biggest names of French culture: Justin Jaeckin and Serge Gainsbourg.
Just Jaeckin had quickly became the king of French erotic cinema with his first two feature films. Emmanuelle and The Story of O lured in an exploitation audience with an art house aesthetic. They were date films for couples that were curious about exploring kinky elements in their lives. The camera work was top notch so they didn’t look like the roughies that would clog up the grindhouses. They were Eurotique. Serge Gainsbourg is best known in America for his moaning epic “Je t’aime… moi non plus.” He originally recorded the song as a duet with Bridget Bardot, but her husband was shocked at how it sounded like the two singers were getting freaky in the recording booth. Serge re-recorded and released it with actress Jane Birkin. Serge would go on to make more erotically charged masterpieces including Histoire de Melody Nelson with Birkin. Later he’d upset prudish people by recording a duet with his daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg where they sing about “Lemon Incest.” He enjoyed being a bit naughty. It seemed destined that Just and Serge would collaborate. They finally came together on a film about Madame Claude, France’s most infamous pimptress.
Things heat up quick when one of Madame Claude’s women touches down in the Concorde. She’s whisked away in a limo to what’s supposed to be The White House. After a meeting with his cabinet, the President (The Dirty Dozens‘ Robert Webber) goes into the Oval Office for a quickie with his guest. He then informs her that she needs to have a date with another world leader to help seal a government deal. While this scene seems a little bit farfetched, Madame Claude claimed she used to supply women to JFK and other world leaders. Edward (Murray Head best known as the singer of “One Night in Bangkok”) is a photographer who is close to one of Claude’s main girls. He’s putting together a file of certain activities involving Claude’s clientele in order to bail him out of trouble. Madame Claude (Belle de Jour‘s Françoise Fabian) doesn’t notice his scheme at first since she’s recruiting the attractive Elizabeth (The Last Romantic Lover‘s Dayle Haddon) to join her stable. The girl is a bit rough when introduced to the game. Elizabeth turns out to be a fast learner. She sent off for a date involving the wealthy Klaus Kinski (Aguirre, The Wrath of God). He plays the kind of rich industrialist who would call up Madame Claude for an escort to be sent over. There’s a lot of intrigue involving a military deal that might destroy Madame Claude’s empire if her famous clients get exposed by Edward.
The film balances the salacious element of Madame Claude’s call girl adventures with the tense thriller nature of the scandal is on the verge of erupting. How long will her clients protect her before they decide she needs to be eliminated? Madame Claude is more than just a jaunty view at hookers working in France.
Cinematographer Robert Fraisse (The Story of O & The Notebook) gives a soft glow to the imagery. Madame Claude radiates as a fine imported art film from the era. The scenes involving the women escorting their powerful clients are seductive. A viewer will want to pick up the phone and give Madame Claude a call so they can enjoy the evening at a ’70s Euro Jet set party. Fraisse gives Kinski a sophisticated framing instead of making him look like a madman about to completely lose control. Serge Gainsbourg’s score works well with Just’s imagery. His theme song “Yesterday, Yes A Day” features Jane Birkin. There’s not a false note in his score (which is provided on a bonus CD).
In America, the film’s title was changed. Madame Claude probably sounded too weird for movie audiences in 1979. Claude back then was a klutzy guy. There might be folks who think Madame Claude was a sequel to La Cage aux Folles or have something to do with Van Morrison’s “Madame George.” The American distributor picked the completely banal title of The French Lady. Although once they publicized it was by the director of Emmanuelle, people knew there was a bit more to this woman besides being from France.
Madame Claude became a cult hit in America with the mix of high-class prostitution and international intrigue. The film reportedly played quite a bit on Cinemax After Dark (or Friday After Dark). Just Jaeckin gave us a film about the seductive beauty of prostitution and the harshness of what happens when someone tries to expose those that enjoy the privileges of being in Madame Claude’s black book. Jaeckin once more proves to be a master of cinema that gives a sleek view of a lurid life in Madame Claude.
The video is 1.85:1 anamorphic. The transfer brings out the jet set beauty of the film You get to see the Concorde pulling up on the tarmac. The audio includes French 2.0 LPCM, French 2.0 DTS-HD MA and an English 2.0 Dolby Digital. I’m not sure if there’s a true language track in the film since this is an international cast. Serge Gainsbourg’s music shines on the soundtrack. The movie is subtitled in English.
Compact Disc of soundtrack featuring Serge Gainsbourg’s score.
Audio Commentary by Jeremy Richey goes into the facts and the fiction. Richey has written Sylvia Kristel: From Emmanuelle to Chabrol. She made a few films with Jaeckin so he knows quite about about the director’s work.
Interview with Just Jaeckin (27:00) has him talk about being an artistic director for magazines that led to him being a photographer which led to filmmaker and finally a sculptor. He was a military photographer. He talks about how after the success of Emmanuelle, he tried to approach a different genre, but ended up getting backing for The Story of O. He followed it up with Madame Claude which was based on a real person. He found her brother’s biography on her rather boring and he spiced it up. He came up with the part of who was protecting her operation. Madame Claude approved of the film and let them know Just and the screenwriter had guessed right on their fictionalized elements of her life. Jaeckin passed away on September 6, 2022
Theatrical Trailer (1:35) promise a glimpse into the world of high-class prostitution.
Promotional Gallery (1:22) is a montage of posters, lobby cards, magazine pages, Japanese article, the cast in wet t-shirts and press photos.
Cult Epics Trailers includes Death Laid an Egg, P.O. Box Tinto Brass, Paprika, The Lickerish Quartet, Camille 2000, Blue Movie and My Nights with Susan, Sandra, Olga & Julie. It appears all the films from Cult Epics are out. I highly recommend Radley Metzger’s Lickerish Quartet and Camille 2000.
Cult Epics present Madame Claude. Directed by Just Jaeckin. Screenplay by Andre G. Brunelin. Starring Françoise Fabian, Dayle Haddon, Murray Head, Klaus Kinski, Vibeke Knudsen-Bergeron, Maurice Ronet and Robert Webber. Running Time: 109 minutes. Rating: Not Rated. Release Date: November 22, 2022.