Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris: Make It Work, by David Bax
Lesley Manville has been acting onscreen for nearly half a century but, at the moment, she is arguably best known for a more recent picture, 2017’s Phantom Thread. So there’s something metatextually funny about her taking the lead role in Anthony Fabian‘s Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, another film set in the world of mid-twentieth century haute couture but this time with a much sunnier outlook. For what it’s worth, Fabian also (perhaps unintentionally) nods to a different 2010s arthouse masterpiece when an early scene of Mrs. Harris (Manville) furtively fondling her employer’s designer clothes recalls Personal Shopper; the outlook here is much sunnier than that one.
These superficial similarities aside, though, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris has a more classical, mid-twentieth century era of cinema on its mind. It’s not a musical, though it often feels like the characters are about to start singing. But it still has that sense of lavishness. Much of it comes from the undeniably charming location photography–unsurprisingly, the movie really takes off once Mrs. Harris actually arrives in Paris, intent on spending her savings on a Christian Dior dress like the one she saw in her boss’s closet–but there’s also something to be said for the intoxicating movie star power of the lovely and charming cast. In addition to Manville, there’s Jason Isaacs as a gruff working class neighbor with a soft heart, Isabelle Huppert as a version of the same role Manville played in Phantom Thread, Lambert Wilson as a charming French nobleman, Christian McKay as a saucy aristocrat and young, relative newcomers like Alba Baptista, Rose Williams and Lucas Bravo to round things out.
Mrs. Harris‘ doesn’t always have the substance to back up all this flash, though. With the way that Mrs. Harris seems to improve people’s lives just by being her good, old, positive self, the movie risks inclusion in the cynical and growing subgenre of movies and television shows about “kindness,” stories that tend to shift the blame for humanity’s problems away from the greedy, selfish and powerful individuals who actually make things worse by insisting with a condescending smile that all one needs to improve the world is to just be nice to people. Mrs. Harris might as well be Ted Lasso in a frock.
To be fair, the movie does acknowledge the call for more significant action, as when Mrs. Harris leads the workers of Dior in a strike. But even then, the resolution is just as insulting in its suggestion of compassionate capitalism as the similarly weak and pollyannaish resolution to Marc Forster‘s Christopher Robin in 2018.
Mrs. Harris fares far better when it focuses on that which has so stricken and compelled its protagonist, the glamorous world of high fashion. When she lucks into attending a private runway show at Dior, we understand how awed she is by the dresses the models wear because the movie feels the same way. And, if we have any of Mrs. Harris in us, we do too.
But the film is not just some piece of propaganda for the Dior brand. This is a movie that says it’s not wrong to admire beautiful things. Life is lived, by most, with the eyes and hands. The appreciation of craft and sartorial elegance is so much more than materialism. There’s something primal about it, in the same way there is about any reaction to art. But there’s something humanist about it too; we don’t just love the things, we love the passion of the people who made them and the way it comes through in the design and construction. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris isn’t as inspired as the dresses it showcases but it is a well-mounted argument for the importance of fashion.