Imagine looking longingly into the window display of a French patisserie, which is filled with brightly coloured pastries such as chocolatey éclairs, airy macarons, and sparkly religieuses… In terms of filmmaking, Anthony Fabian’s affable and disarming “Mrs Harris Goes to Paris” is about as close as you can get to the sense of having your sweet craving satisfied without actually consuming any sugar or fat.
This sweet treat, which is set in the 1950s and was adapted from Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel (which was adorably titled “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris”) by a crowded group of screenwriters that included Carroll Cartwright, Keith Thompson, and Olivia Hetreed in addition to Fabian, is as pretty and heartwarming as you can imagine in following a simple housekeeper’s dreamy quest to travel to Paris and purchase her very own Christian Dior
It is to the film’s advantage that the title character, Ada, a war widow living in London and supporting herself as a lowly domestic, is portrayed by the irresistibly charming Lesley Manville, an actress who possesses both an effortless grace and an unrelenting tenacity on stage.
Given that both of these movies are set in the 1950s and center on the world of haute couture, it is impossible not to think of her character from “Phantom Thread.” On the other hand, the friendly Mrs Harris couldn’t be more different from Cyril, the steely head of the House of Woodcock, who had click-clacking heels and a no-nonsense attitude.
Ada, on the other hand, is a selfless humanitarian who never stops working, and she has the kindest heart a human being could ever have. And Manville does such a superb job of gaining the audience’s favour so quickly that you don’t even for a second wonder why a diligent cleaning lady with limited means would spend all of her life’s money on an unnecessary luxury like a designer gown. You don’t even question it for a second.
After all, this is a humorous take on the classic fairy tale, and who is to say that Mrs. Harris’ fantasy, which she gets the instant she lays eyes on a Dior outfit owned by one of her wealthy clients for the first time, isn’t just as valid as anybody else’s amorous pursuits?
Indeed, fashion is synonymous with love in “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,” a film that has a profound understanding of the reasons why a stunning gown or a well-coordinated ensemble from head to toe can provide the impression of being protected by an impregnable shield.
(On that point, even if Ada has a limited budget, she never looks less than polished, and sometimes even a little fancy, thanks to the gorgeous prints and optimistic florals that predominate her daywear.)
In light of this, it is impossible not to support Mrs. Harris in her endeavor, particularly after she has amassed sufficient funds via the generosity of her loved ones and the people she has just met along the way. Ava eventually arrives at the fabled House of Dior, which is rumored to be located on Avenue Montaigne, after partaking in a series of random bets and odd diversions such as dog racing.
The screenplay does not spend a lot of time dwelling on the plausibility and practicality of the situation. In this regard, don’t ask how a Pollyanna-like civilian who doesn’t really look like the haughty Dior type casually strolls into the designer house and before you know it, mingles with the head of the label, Claudine Colbert (Isabelle Huppert, giving Cyril Woodcock a run for his money), the brand’s handsome accountant André (Lucas Bravo), and top model Natasha Lyonne (Natasha Poly).
Isabel (Alba Baptista). In spite of this, this is precisely what occurs after the dashing suitor Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson) publicly supports Mrs. Harris and invites her to join him in the forthcoming fashion show for the label.
This centrepiece display is really what you come to “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” for, with Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan wonderfully in command.
It showcases different New Look-era frocks, including a rendition of the iconic Bar Suit. And how could Ada not fall in love with every single article of clothing that she sees, notably an emerald-green gown named Venus and her all-time favourite: the glittery, crimson-red tea-length dress that is called Temptation?
But after the initially villainous Claudine (who becomes more sympathetic as the story progresses) reveals that Temptation is exclusively promised to a repeat client of Dior, Ada makes peace with Venus, the expedited making of which would require the house’s miracle cutters to spend a couple of speedy weeks working.
Ada establishes a new routine in Paris, where she once again wins the love and trust of everyone she comes into contact with, after moving in with the kind André during this time and even putting her skills as a matchmaker to work (yes, André and the intelligent Natasha are potential romantic interests).
Ada also puts her matchmaking skills to use. In any other context, the film’s unbelievable conclusion, which is both so absurdly whimsical and so perfectly packaged that even a story like Cinderella would be jealous of it, would elicit nothing but scoffs from the audience.
However, in the universe that Fabian creates, which is reminiscent of a fairy tale, it seems to fit in perfectly and was even justly merited. The world isn’t the happiest place to be these days, so why not applaud a little bit for a pure, decent character who is wearing a wonderful dress when the world isn’t the happiest place to be?