Sex and Corruption on a Global Scale.
DIRECTED BY JUST JAECKIN/FRENCH; ENGLISH/1977
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: FEBRUARY 9, 2021/CULT EPICS
Just Jaeckin was through with erotica. At least, that’s his claim today when discussing his third feature film, 1977’s Madame Claude. With the tremendous success of his opulent early-1970s erotic films Emmanuelle and The Story of O, the French former photographer was quickly finding himself pigeonholed.
Unable to completely break out, he opted to go part way with the ripped-from-the-headlines, based-on-a-true tale, Madame Claude (or, The French Woman). Based on an infamous moment in the life of high-end brothel keeper and police informant Fernande Grudet, aka Madame Claude, the film is part ripped-from-the-headlines thriller, part character study, and yes, part softcore erotica.
Of those three, Jaeckin does very well with the character study aspect, excels at staging the sexy stuff, but delivers a thriller narrative that is somewhat convoluted. Of course, such a tangled web might just have been par for the course in the film’s source plot, the long-running and multi-pronged international Lockheed aircraft company bribery scandal. Claude’s own tax evasion and subsequent public revelation of names in her “little black book” (indicting such luminaries as JFK, the shah of Iran, and former head of Fiat Gianni Agnelli.
Much time is spent in clandestine meetings and cold-shoulder gatherings as the espionage angles of the story pull to a tighter knot. Terrific actors like Robert Webber, Maurice Ronet, and a brilliantly restrained Klaus Kinski cross paths, get in and out of cars, and speak in terse tones as the sex n’ secrets affair continues to inflate. (Jaeckin shares how he accomplished taming the famously volatile Kinski in an exclusive 2020 on-camera interview, available in the disc’s bonus features).
These many such moments are broken up with moments of call-girl action- some of whom get personally too close to proverbial fire. Particularly compelling are model-turned-beauty product promoter Dayle Haddon and actress Vibeke Knudsen. Key in the central expose is an always-present side-hustling photographer played by musician Murray Head (1984’s “One Night in Bangkok” being his biggest hit).
And of course, front and center through it all is the great Françoise Fabian as the title character. Fabian brandishes the role with ice-queen gusto, an absolute magnetic force onscreen whom one has no trouble believing could command a fleet of beautiful would-be models who have found themselves call girls to the world’s most powerful men. Fabian’s inner conflict registers while her control never cracks- even as the walks are closing in on her character. She absolutely carries the picture.
Another tremendously strong aspect of Madame Claude is its original score by the legendary Serge Gainsbourg. Gainsbourg’s libidinous music for this film can function as a work unto itself, though it integrates perfectly into the film, functioning to pull together the otherwise disparate elements of the political thriller and the numerous gauzy, very 1970s erotic interludes. Also of note is the work of cinematographer Robert Fraisse, who cultivates an international vibe of wealth and corruption with subtle precision. The new 4K HD transfer from original 35mm negative (which Fraisse supervised) is a fine showcase of his work.
For fans of 1970s thrillers with a strong dose of the sexual, this classy release from Cult Epics is a must-own. The film’s French language mono audio track is available in both its original LPCM 2.0 and a new DTS-HD MA 2.0 version. The original English audio is also available in a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track. Jeremy Richey, author of the upcoming book Sylvia Kristel: From Emmanuelle to Chabrol, delivers a wonderful audio commentary that is both highly informative and a pleasure to listen to. If only more such audio commentaries were so good. The other major bonus feature is the aforementioned 2020 interview with director Just Jaeckin, which offers straight-from-the-horses-mouth illumination as to his methods and goals with this film as well as the rest of his career.
Jaeckin may’ve never broken free of his reputation as a filmmaker of eroticism as he’d hoped, but as previously mentioned, he’s awfully apt at doing so. Even in a fundamentally unsexy story such as this (no amount of writhing skin can overshadow the central austere investigation/intrigue tenor), the filmmaker’s skills shine through to lend an expert sexuality throughout. Though call girls and tax evasion may not have mixed well in real life for Madame Claude, they merge together quite well for this artistically-crafted and fascinating global thriller.