Film & TV

Film Review: Haute Couture

Esther, a couturier at Dior has her handbag stolen by a young girl. But when the girl returns the bag, Esther takes her under her wing.

Sylvie Ohayon is unusual in the cinematic field: primarily a novelist, she only directed her first film Papa Was Not a Rolling Stone, when a friend encouraged her to adapt her own novel for the screen. She has once again chosen to get behind the camera, this time with an original screenplay written by herself and Sylvie Verheyde.

Haute Couture tells the story of Esther, Head Couturier at Dior Avenue Montaigne. Having dedicated her life to Dior, she is struggling with being pushed into retirement. One morning in the Metro, she has her handbag stolen by two girls from the ‘banlieue’, the working-class outer-suburbs of Paris. When the girls realise there is a Star of David necklace in the bag, their superstition of stealing religious icons leads one of the girls, Jade, to find Esther and return her bag. Although at first furious when her bag is returned, Esther sees something in Jade, and persuades her to come into the workshop and take an internship.

Haute Couture is a classic Pygmalion tale. A young girl is taken from her working-class roots and put under the wing of a teacher. And in the process, the teacher learns as much as the student. And in the nature of these standard templates, there are some moments of predictability. But Ohayon has managed to lift this story above its tropes and make it into something fresh, intelligent, and absolutely delightful.

The wonderful Nathalie Baye stars as Esther, delivering a tough and uncompromising woman who struggles with personal relationships, especially those with her estranged daughter. Baye is able to show us Esther’s under-current of depression in a way that is subtle, moving, and authentic. Ohayon wrote this film partly for her own daughter Jade, to help her understand how having a trade or profession can help you through the darkest times. Jade is played by young Algerian actor Lyna Khoudri who puts in a powerful performance to match that of Baye.

What is refreshing about Haute Couture is that it is not afraid to look squarely at issues such as class, race, and social mobility in France. Both Jade and her best friend Souad ( Soumaye Bocoum) are of Arabic background. The Dior atelier is predominantly white, and middle-class. The screenplay also allows for a loving but unsentimental examination of the mother-daughter relationship. Esther is estranged from her daughter and takes Jade as a sort of surrogate. Meanwhile Jade’s own mother is house-bound due to crippling depression, with Jade having to mother her.

But the heart of this work is the atelier itself. Ohayon spent time researching in the ateliers of both Dior and Chanel, particularly talking to seamstresses about their lives and their work. This has resulted in detailed shots of the craft of sewing, through which learn much about the characters . The love with which these scenes are directed and performed will draw in audiences interested in dressmaking, and those with no knowledge of it. In this way it shares many similarities with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread from 2017.

Haute Couture is just like one of the Dior gowns it depicts: perfectly measured, exquisitely detailed, intelligently structured, and above all, breathtakingly beautiful.

Haute Couture opens on June 30th

Perfectly measured and breathtakingly beautiful 4.5 stars

[adrotate banner="159"]
To Top