It is by interposed cameras, on Zoom, thatAlloCine met Sylvie Verheyde to talk about her sixth film, Madame Claude. This biopic looks back, as its name suggests, on the life of Fernande Grudet, a social figure at the head of a major prostitution network in France in the sixties and seventies. The filmmaker has already been interested in the commodification of the body with Sex Doll, her previous feature film, but this time she wishes to film the dark side of a “woman of the people“corrupt and driven by success.
AlloCiné: This is your second film on prostitution. Why were you interested in the still very popular figure of Madame Claude?
Sylvie Verheyde: There are two reasons. On the one hand, my mother, who comes from a very popular background, left her native Auvergne to go to Paris in the hope of succeeding. She was a waitress and then bought her own coffee. For her, Madame Claude was a figure of success. It seemed odd to me that a pimp was a role model for women of her generation. I asked myself a lot of questions.
The other reason is the news. Today, there are students who prostitute themselves to pay their rent, call girls who use social networks, like Instagram, to work. But I am not fascinated by prostitution. I wanted to dive back into this subject and rethink it in the years of Madame Claude by attacking this glamorous figure. The only film that had been made on her was that of Just Jaeckin, which did not really deconstruct the myth, on the contrary. I wanted to show a woman’s point of view. I was interested in deconstructing his image and showing behind the scenes.
Madame Claude has created a personality from scratch …
She built a myth for herself, an avatar. I wanted to start from the lie and find the emotional thread of the truth. Madame Claude is a cliché: a country girl, she becomes pregnant at 16 during the war, then she goes to Paris, leaving her daughter to her mother and becomes a prostitute. I wanted to come back from that and confront her with the figures of the big bandits. I built the film around this rise and fall. She was a pioneer in her field, but the stories of manners caught up with her.
I wanted to show this woman’s contradictions, like a Martin Scorsese heroine.
What is interesting is that his fall is not so much caused by men, but by a woman who enters his life …
Absolutely. Her story and that of her “daughters” is the reconstitution of a dysfunctional family. She is both a good mother and a bad mother. There is an almost love bond with Sidonie, played by Garance Marillier. But the latter embodies the new generation and how far it has come. She can speak, denounce, file a complaint. Before, women couldn’t even have checkbooks. For rural women, the prospects for the future and success when they were poor were almost nil. For many, it was direction of the factory.
You were talking about Garance Marillier. In one of the scenes of the film, his character files a complaint against his father for incest. It’s a sequence that resonates with the news. How did you approach this sequence?
Doing Sex doll, I have met a lot of call girls and there is, among these young girls, a slide towards prostitution from a trauma, which is often rape. Sidonie, that’s what defined her. This is where I take sides in the film. I say we have to talk. It is also thanks to the MeToo era that I was able to do this project. Building a film with only women and which questions the dark side of a woman is brand new. I had the idea 6 or 7 years ago and I felt blockages. But with series, I think in particular of Jessica Jones, who is an anti-heroine, and thanks to the liberation of the word, I was able to do Madame Claude.
Karole Rocher stars in all of your films. How did you build this character with her?
This film is the autopsy of a monster. She is fascinating, she has power, she makes men tremble, but she is also a bandit. When you look at Pablo Escobar, he’s nice to his son and he can cut a man’s throat right after. With Karole, we talked about this duality. I wanted to show this woman’s contradictions, like a Martin Scorsese heroine.
My feature film is an unauthorized biography.
Today we talk a lot about female gauze, in other words the feminine gaze, especially when it comes to nudity. Your film does not sexualize women, which is the complete opposite of Just Jaeckin’s film….
Just Jaeckin’s film is almost a marketing product for Madame Claude. She even sent him girls. He was paid by her. This is his apology. My feature film is an unauthorized biography. With my actresses, we were all sure to make the same film. There was no ambiguity. And the fact that I’m a woman reassures them. The movie I made before, Sex doll, speak for me. For the nudity scenes with Garance Marillier, who is very young, we did them with great respect and almost out of tune. I have a real tenderness with the heart and no erotic fascination.
I would also like to point out that all the men in the film, whether Roschdy Zem or Benjamin Biolay, had the class to accept secondary roles. Usually, the actors are the headliners and don’t want to have small roles. Here it is the other way around. They had the elegance to do it.
Your film was originally intended for theaters. How do you experience its availability on Netflix?
It’s obviously linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Netflix imposed itself immediately. It is both an auteur film, a personal film, but also a genre film. In theaters, it’s difficult to bring the two together. And it is the possibility of being seen all over the world. Sex-Doll, which had not worked in France, was bought by Netflix and since then I still receive many messages from abroad. I’m happy, Madame Claude will travel.
Interview by Thomas Desroches, March 19, 2021.
Check out the trailer for “Madame Claude”: