LOFT FILM FESTIVAL 2022 REVIEW! The French invented narrative cinema, and director Sylvie Ohayon shows they’re still at it with her superb Haute Couture. Esther (Nathalie Baye) is being forced to retire from being a head dressmaker for Dior. During her last season at the workshop on Avenue Montaigne, she has to train Catherine (Pascale Arbillot) to fill her position. Unfortunately, Esther’s life outside of dressmaking is s**t. She isn’t taking care of her health and isn’t speaking with her daughter. To make matters worse, on the way home from work, Esther has her purse stolen by two 20-year-old girls in the subway.
One of the thieves, Jade (Lyna Khoudri), finds a gold Star of David necklace in the purse and tries to give it to a girlfriend as a present. Her friends in the projects urge her to return it, as stealing religious objects can bring bad luck. She tracks down where Esther works from the purse contents and gives it back. Instead of reporting Jade, Esther comments on how Jade’s hands are the perfect size for dressmaking. She invites Jade to return to the shop to see if she can get her going at Dior. Catherine welcomes Jade, as she grew up in the same ghetto Jade did.
However, Andree (Claude Perron) isn’t keen on having Jade intern. Andree feels she’s from the wrong side of the metro and seemingly dislikes Arabs in general. Jade struggles with the pressure as well as her battered self-esteem from her dead-end home life. However, the delicacy of the lace embroidery and the value of the skills to make such things keeps drawing her back in. If only she could stop fighting.
“…Esther comments on how Jade’s hands are the perfect size for dressmaking.”
With Haute Couture, Ohayon has supercharged the chick flick into an elevated film de femme. It’s a firehose of sophistication. The filmmaker has pulled off the feat of keeping the tone frothy even with its bitter undercurrents, like a cafe creme. This envelopes the audience into the endless beauty of constructing a Dior and allows an understanding of how the skill of dressmaking is so transcendental to these characters. You see small galaxies in the close-ups of the fabrics in the montages of craftsmanship. The way the director emotionally lifts the audience, making what is heavy seem very light, is impressive. It is breezy without losing any muscle.
Ohayon and co-writer Sylvie Verheyde sharply chronicle the cliff to nowhere many can recognize, whether it is a young person trying to find a direction in life or an older person losing the one they had. This gives credence to the gravity of the characters’ grim situations while giving them a gorgeous escape. I wish there were a way to bottle this elusive quality and distribute it to more films. Or maybe roll it up and pass it down.
Baye is dead-solid perfect as Esther, bringing grumpiness like hurricanes bring destruction. I truly bought every last drop of exasperation. There is no easy way into the heart of a thorny beast as this. Khoudri, the poster girl of scooter mod in The French Dispatch, shows her range. Her anger is real and justified. You really feel for her. The interplay between the two is exceptional. Boy, they can butt heads like nobody’s business.
As this picture targets women, the men stay in the background and look pretty, as they are potential love objects. However, as a man addicted to fashion design TV contests, all the inside dope on Dior dresses had me salivating. Also, many people will respond to the film’s examination of class prejudice and struggles. Haute Couture has the advantage of a title and concept that will attract the exact sort of people it was made for, like free scoops at an ice cream parlor. Ohayon shows that the French are still full of tricks after more than a century.
Haute Couture screened at the 2022 Loft Film Festival.
"…a firehose of sophistication."