One wonders what the late Jean-Luc Godard would have made of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. When the famous avant-garde director died last month, the tributes were predictably fulsome, but I can’t believe anyone actually enjoyed sitting through anything Godard made after about 1965.
For the vast majority of people there is only one reason to go to the movies: entertainment, and most films are made to satisfy that appetite. If it’s not a matter of car chases, martial arts contests, and things exploding, there’s always the heart-warming, feel-good story, and this is where Mrs. Harris comes in.
The character springs from a 1958 novel by Paul Gallico about a London charwoman who becomes besotted with a client’s Christian Dior dress and flies to Paris to acquire her own piece of haute couture. Gallico’s book was the first in a series, in which “Mrs. ‘Arris” went to New York, Moscow, and even became a Member of Parliament. Given the ongoing meltdown of the Tory Party, it doesn’t sound so far-fetched.
I’m not tempted to read Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris but it would be interesting to track the ways in which director, Anthony Fabian, has altered the story to add another dimension to the lovable charlady. For instance, one suspects Mrs. Harris’s good friend, Vi Butterfield (Ellen Thomas), wasn’t Jamaican in the book. Their close relationship adds another virtue to Mrs. Harris’s impressive collection – she doesn’t judge people by wealth, creed, or colour.
I’m especially curious as to whether Gallico lingered so lovingly on the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, which becomes a comic leitmotif in the film. Indeed, one gets the impression that Existentialism was as much a French fashion of the 50s as Dior’s ‘New Look’ was in 1947.
This new version of Mrs. Harris is a cockney saint. For actress, Lesley Manville, one could hardly imagine anything more contrary to her role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Phantom Thread (2017), in which she played Cyril, the frosty manager of her brother’s ultra-exclusive fashion house.
In the guise of cheerful Mrs. Ada Harris, she spends her life cleaning and sewing for upper-class boors such as Lady Dant (Anna Chancellor), or aspiring actress, Pamela Penrose (Rose Williams). Mrs. Harris has lost her husband, Eddie, in the war, but still talks to him when alone. She and her friend, Vi, are virtually inseparable, and they both have a pal in a friendly bookie, named Archie (Jason Isaacs).
Life might have chugged along in this way indefinitely, had not Mrs. Harris spied a Christian Dior dress in Lady Dant’s boudoir, and thought it the most beautiful thing on earth. Getting over her shock at the price – “five hundred quid!” – she starts saving towards her own Dior frock, being helped by a string of lucky occurrences, such as a win on the pools.
When she gets to Paris, cash in hand, Mrs. Harris is a smash hit with toute le monde, from the tramps dossed down at a railway station, to the staff at Maison Christian Dior. Her only failure is with the manager, Madame Colbert (Isabelle Huppert – who knows how to play the bitch), but we can be confident that even her formidable snobbery is destined to crumble.
The charlady superstar forms warm friendships with a good-hearted model named Natasha (Alba Baptista), a handsome accountant, André Fauvel (Lucas Bravo), and a dashing Marquis (Lambert Wilson). It’s as if the French have never encountered a cockney cleaning lady and are completely disarmed by this new phenomenon. The big questions are: “Will she get her dress?” And if so, “What will she do with it?”
I won’t reveal any more of the plot. Suffice to say the entire film is so sugary I felt like cleaning my teeth when it was over. In this fable, Mrs. Harris is not only Cinderella, hoping to buy the dress that transforms her into a princess, but the Fairy Godmother as well, intent on engineering a romance between Natasha and André. She even has a touch of Rosa Luxemburg, helping the workers claim their rights at Maison Dior.
Paul Gallico was an American who looked at salt-of-the-earth Londoners such as Mrs Harris through the eyes of an outsider. The character is a benign compound of all the English working-class virtues and none of the vices. The portrayal of the French is even further removed from reality, being a merciless yet affectionate caricature. If everyone in the French fashion industry were as nice as these people there would never have been an industry. The only nasty specimen is a certain Madame Avallon who looks down on Mrs. Harris and will undoubtedly pay for her class consciousness.
Yes, it’s all good, clean fun, wrapped in an intrusive musical score that constantly lets us know when it’s time to be thrilled by the sheer magic of it all. The recurrent theme in the dialogue is the need to hang on to your dreams. Apparently, what’s special about Mrs. Harris is that she has dreams and hangs on to them. This is presented as a supreme moral virtue.
Mrs. Harris may be a bit more woke than her fictional counterpart of 1958, but she still has no bigger “dream” than to be the owner of a £500 frock. Like so many working-class types who strike it lucky she believes that the possession of expensive goods confers class and sophistication (cf. Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin…). But because Mrs. Harris is so saintly in every way, we have to forgive her this materialistic fixation, and perhaps forgive the entire fashion industry in the process. After all, what are the big couturiers selling if not dreams?
One hopes the filmmakers received generous assistance from Dior, as the movie is a lengthy advertisement for the firm, which is presented as the embodiment of French elegance. No other designer even scores a mention.
If it’s hard to get too excited about Mrs. Harris and her adventures in Paris this tale is still a big step up from the George Clooney-Julia Roberts vehicle, Ticket to Paradise, which imperialistically viewed the Balinese as exotic, child-like natives. In Fabian’s movie, it’s the French who are the naïve and childish ones, needing Mrs. Harris’s earthy common sense to set them on the right path. After all, you can only go so far with Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean-Luc Godard.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris
Directed by Anthony Fabian
Written by Carroll Cartwright, Anthony Fabian, Keith Thompson, Olivia Hetreed, after a novel by Paul Gallico
Starring: Lesley Manville, Isabelle Huppert, Lambert Wilson, Alba Baptista, Lucas Bravo, Ellen Thomas, Jason Isaacs, Rose Williams, Anna Chancellor, Philippe Bertin
UK/Canada/France/USA/Hungary/Belgium, rated PG, 115 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 29 October, 2022