HAUTE COUTURE

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Sylvie Ohayon

Stars: Nathalie Baye, Lyna Khoudri, Soumaye Bocoumi, Pascale Arbillot, Adam Bessa, Claude Perron, Clothilde Courau.

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The French make fine films about food, family and fashion. While Haute Couture is set against the backdrop of the high-end fashion industry it is primarily a film that deals with complex mother/daughter relationships and class issues in contemporary France.  

Esther (Cesar winning actress Nathalie Baye, recently seen in Downton Abbey: A New Era, etc) is the head seamstress at Dior Avenue Montaigne workshop in Paris, but she is nearing the end of her career. She is preparing dresses for her final fashion show. One day on the subway her handbag is stolen by a young thief Jade (Lyna Khoudri, from Blessed, etc), who lives in a housing project on the outskirts of Paris, with her ill mother (Clothilde Courau). The projects are largely a ghetto for African immigrants and impoverished families living on welfare. She has a chip on her shoulder about the privileged classes. 

The next day Jade returns the bag. But rather than call the police Esther offers Jade a job as an intern at her atelier (workshop). Esther is estranged from her own daughter and leads a fairly lonely and solitary life. She sees Jade as something of a surrogate daughter to whom she can pass on her knowledge and skills and passion and provide her with a better, more hopeful future. Designing dresses is not about the money, Esther cautions Jade, but about the beauty and the creativity and the joy that they bring.  

It is sometimes a prickly relationship between Esther and Jade, who has her own problems in dealing with her deeply religious and demanding mother who is bedridden and something of a hypochondriac. At work, Andree (Claude Perron), who is one of Esther’s seamstresses, is jealous of the way that Jade seems to be getting favoured treatment and goes out of her way to undermine her and sabotage her work. Far more sympathetic and supportive are Catherine (Pascale Arbillot), Esther’s longtime friend and right-hand manager, and Abel (Adam Bessa, from Extraction, etc), himself an aspiring designer and potential love interest for Jade. Jade’s best friend from the housing project is Souad (Soumaye Bocoum), herself a colourful and outspoken character who often wonders what Jade has gotten herself into.  

Haute Couture has been written and directed by Sylvie Ohayon, and this is only her sophomore feature following 2014’s Papa Was Not A Rolling Stone. The film has a semi-autobiographical element to it as Ohayon was inspired by her own estranged relationship with her teenaged daughter, but she veers away from excessive sentimentality. There is a gritty edge to this tale. Ohayon researched the life and routines of an atelier to inform this drama.  

The film’s narrative arc and odd couple pairing is a little predictable, but the main characters are endearing and the performances of the two leads are superb. At the crux of the film is the unlikely friendship that slowly develops between these two women from different ends of the social spectrum. Khouri (from The French Dispatch, etc) is full of fire and attitude while Baye is more restrained, and her performance seems full of regrets and sadness. Marie Cheminal’s production design is exquisite as are the costumes designed by Olga Richon.  The film has been nicely shot by cinematographer George Lechaptois (tv series Savages, etc). 

★★★ 

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