Written and directed by Stéphane Riethauser, a family saga based on private archive footage, where a flamboyant 90-year-old grandmother and her filmmaker grandson (Riethauser) explore the development and transmission of gender identity in a patriarchal environment.
To say this is a very personal documentary would be an understatement, it’s intensely intimate, even perhaps at times too much so. Stéphane Riethauser leaves everything out on the table with this film, it’s a deep dive into his life from childhood to adulthood. It’s extremely honest and open, even going so far as to admit initially that this story is based on his perception and therefore undeniably biased. It’s a story balanced between family drama and reminiscence, and sexuality and gender, especially in the context of growing up in an atmosphere of toxic, old fashioned ideas about both.
Possibly the strongest element is not the more topical side but the relationship between Riethauser and his grandmother, Caroline Della Beffa. It’s incredibly touching and she’s a genuinely fascinating woman who had a remarkable life. It’s interesting to explore how she has some traditional ideals and yet she herself has followed basically none of them, setting her own path. Starting her own successful business, divorced twice, was the second person in Geneva to get a driver’s license, the list goes on, it makes you wish you could have met her. The both of them are inherently interesting people, who bring unique yet relatable perspectives.
You’d imagine that a film entirely made of home video footage, voicemails and photos might wane at some point but it doesn’t. The way that it’s edited together has a loving, sentimental flow to it, which is enchanting to watch. It can get slightly bogged down in too many details which aren’t entirely necessary but it doesn’t hinder the pace too much. The atmosphere it builds makes up for any tangents. Keen eyes will also catch a brief glimpse of the late Marsha P. Johnson in the family’s New York vacation footage, which is a pleasure to see her smiling away.
Madame is an intensely personal and intimate documentary exploring the touching relationship between grandmother and grandson. It loses its way briefly at times but that doesn’t take away from the loving, sentimental and moving atmosphere which the film builds. Caroline Della Beffa is a fascinating personality, with the classic frank honesty of a grandma but an inspiring history. Riethauser’s path is similarly interesting, from fighting so hard for masculinity to embracing who he is with full force. It’s both a loving tribute to a matriarch and a charming family saga.