Parisian worlds collide in 'Haute Couture' - review

"Haute Couture" opens in theaters all over the country on August 25.

 SYLVIE OHAYON’S ‘Haute Couture.’ (photo credit: Les Films du 24/Roger Do Minh)
SYLVIE OHAYON’S ‘Haute Couture.’
(photo credit: Les Films du 24/Roger Do Minh)

The worlds of Parisian high fashion and the banlieue, the working-class area outside the city, collide in Sylvie Ohayon’s Haute Couture, which opens in theaters all over the country on August 25.

While much of this film is quite predictable, it is so beautifully done that you will forgive its more obvious moments and embrace its characters. Those interested in fashion, particularly, will enjoy the movie’s behind-the-scenes look at how haute couture gowns are created.

The movie plot

Nathalie Baye stars as Esther, a seamstress who runs the Dior workshop, overseeing the creation of Dior’s delicate, intricate dresses. At the beginning, Esther is mournful and wan, knowing that the fashion show she is now preparing the dresses for will be her last before she retires. She lives alone and is estranged from her daughter, burying herself in her work. 

On her way to the workshop one morning, she is robbed by two girls, who grab her purse. Much worse than the loss of her wallet is the fact that she also had a sketchbook of designs in her bag, but she can’t waste a moment worrying about that. The deadline for the next show is looming and she is ultimately responsible for the clothes that will be on the runway. She’s sure she will never see her purse again. 

The thieves, Jade (Lyna Khoudri) and Souad (Soumaye Bocoum), are two aimless young women of Arab descent who live in a ghetto outside the city and do everything together. Jade’s mother is mentally ill and Souad helps Jade care for her. They have left school and don’t see anything in their future but the prospect of mind-numbing minimum-wage work.

But when they open Esther’s bag, they find a necklace with a Magen David on it, and Souad says they must return this “Jewish cross” because it is bad luck to steal religious symbols. Finding the address of the workshop in the bag, Jade goes there to return it. 

In the movie’s least convincing moment, but the one that is necessary for all that follows, Esther invites Jade to have dinner with her. At the restaurant, Esther lectures her on the importance of hard work and finding a career, words that Jade scoffs at. But when Esther notices and compliments Jade on her beautiful hands, saying she could create amazing things with them, something stirs in Jade and she agrees to come to the workshop, where Esther takes her on as an apprentice. 

There are a few twists and turns before Jade blossoms under Esther’s tutelage, and while they are not terribly original, they are believable. While Jade shows up and tries to learn the trade, she is angry, sullen and defiant at first. One snobbish member of the staff is dead set against her, railing at Esther behind her back for trusting a girl from the banlieue, and Jade proves her right before proving her wrong. Souad can’t understand what Jade is doing and taunts her for working 12-hour days for no pay – she can’t believe this will lead to anything. But Jade persists – which is as emotionally rewarding for Esther as it is for Jade – and if you’ve ever seen a movie before, the ending will not shock you. 

The review

What is compelling, even fascinating, about Haute Couture is not the by-the-numbers plot but the glimpse into the Dior workshop, where if a seamstress pricks her finger and a drop of blood falls onto meters of white silk, weeks of work can be ruined. There are all kinds of rules and rituals, for example, if a pair of scissors falls to the floor, it is considered bad luck and there is a kind of purification ritual for the entire workshop. 

The details of how the work gets done are interesting and it is fun to watch beautiful gowns emerge from the piles of fabric, without having to deal with the kind of boring, emotional drama that marred the pretentious film Phantom Thread, which was also about high fashion.  

A story like this rises or falls on its actors, and Nathalie Baye and Lyna Khoudri are a joy. Baye is one of the most consistently delightful French stars and is convincing as the seamstress whose life has been centered on the workshop for decades. 

International audiences first became aware of her as the director’s assistant in François Truffaut’s Day for Night (if you can find this streaming somewhere, watch it – it’s a wonderful film about making movies), where she demonstrated her gift for both comedy and drama. She can currently be seen in the new Downton Abbey movie and had a small but memorable role in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can.

Khoudri is an up-and-coming actress of Algerian descent, whose look and presence are reminiscent of Isabelle Adjani, whose father was also from Algeria. Khoudri recently appeared in The French Dispatch and will star in the upcoming Three Musketeers reboots alongside the biggest names in French cinema, such as Eva Green, Vincent Cassel, Vicky Krieps and Romain Duris. Baye and Khoudri have a good rapport, particularly when they are driving each other crazy. 

The contrast between the high-fashion workshop and the banlieue works well. These neighborhoods on the periphery of Paris are often seen as nothing more than a breeding ground for Islamic fanatics and criminals, but that is not all they are. They are also home to hard-working immigrants, whose labor keeps Paris glittering. 

It’s obvious that no one ever told Jade that there could be a way out of the poverty in which she grew up, until she met Esther. But the movie is not only about Jade finding a way into a middle-class life. It also tells the story of how she connects to the art and beauty of Esther’s work, which opens the door to another world where life is about more than survival. 

While Jade asks questions about how the seamstresses feel about working on gowns that they will never be able to afford, she eventually accepts Esther’s answer that the price tag is not the point. The point is the beauty.