The President of the United States (Robert Webber) is having difficulty with international relations when it transpires that a Japanese order for Lockheed missiles from his country has been cancelled, leaving the China Seas open to domination by the Communists. He takes a break from the heated debate and retires to his office, where there is a surprise waiting for him: a call girl who he is so delighted to see that he immediately seduces her. What he does not know is that there has been someone snooping around outside, following the prostitute and taking photographs: he is David Evans (Murray Head), and he is involved with a blackmail ring...
If the presence of Murray Head in the cast leads you to hope for a show with everything but Yul Brynner in Madame Claude, then you'll be disappointed, although while we don't get Yul or everything but, we do get Klaus Kinski as a dodgy and wealthy businessman who always has attractive women hanging off his arms. Director Just Jaeckin was, and still is, best known for Emmanuelle, and it is in that vein that he continued foisting his glossy but vacuous sexual fantasies upon the world. This time he had ambitions to saying something about the double dealings of the men in power in this world, so although we never see the President after the first ten minutes, we do see the effects of his influence.
The Madame Claude of the title is played by that classy French actress Françoise Fabian, cornering the market in such alluring older woman roles during the seventies. It is Claude who is orchestrating the call girl network, providing ladies of the night for the rich and powerful, and offering David a nice line in exploiting the clients by snapping a few pics of them in flagrante delicto. That's not the whole story, however, as André G. Brunelin's script has the attention span of a goldfish, and frequently heads off in other directions, much of them concentrating on Elizabeth (Dayle Haddon), a ne'er-do'well who Claude is intent on taking under her wing.
Indeed, the only way you can recognise that this is all the one story is that the same faces keep turning up throughout, as one scene follows another without much connection to what has happened before. The overall impression is that Jaeckin was out of his depth with the political stuff, because he continually returns to the sexual sequences to reawaken the audience's flagging interest, and these too appear to have been dropped in without much reason other than this is what we expected of him. At one point even Madame Claude's dentist announces that she wants to be one of her prostitutes, completely out of the blue.
Mind you, that scene does illustrate that sex is strictly business for the title character, as she turns down the dentist because she thinks she would enjoy herself too much. Sex is not something to be enjoyed for what it is for her, it has to be a step on the way to getting what you want, so she has no interest in, say, allowing Elizabeth to fall in love with Kinski's son after the businessman hires Elizabeth for a weekend in the Caribbean: a harsh lesson for the novice. If you can follow the convolutions of the plot, you should be able to catch on that David is getting in over his (Murray) head with these shady figures looking for his negatives, just as Elizabeth is out of her depth when she cannot be as coldhearted as the sex trade demands. At a late stage, the film turns into a thriller, with a typically cynical seventies ending; although the most cult interest might stem from the Serge Gainsbourg soundtrack, which includes Jane Birkin singing too.