By Sandra Hall
Haute Couture ★★★★
(M) 101 minutes
Film has made much of the fashion industry. Recently, a host of documentaries have taken us inside the houses of Cardin, Dior, Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent and lots more. And in each one, the ateliers’ seamstresses have emerged as the unsung heroines of the piece.
Uncredited, they’re shown working on the architecture of every dress, ensuring it falls properly, and finessing the lining, beading, embroidery and a million other details that define haute couture.
In writer-director Sylvie Ohayon’s new feature, Haute Couture, they are given their due. Nathalie Baye is cast as Esther, the head seamstress at Dior’s Avenue Montaigne workshop in Paris. An acerbic character with little patience for the sensitivities of others, she’s about to retire after devoting decades of her life to the job. It’s cost her all hope of a personal life – she’s fallen out with her daughter – and after finishing up, she’ll be facing a blank diary.
But shortly before the decisive day, a random incident alters everything. She is robbed in the subway.
Resigning to the fact she’s never going to see her handbag or its contents again, she’s outraged and relieved when the thief shows up at the workshop and returns it.
Heartened by this unexpected act of remorse, she becomes curious. The robber, Jade (Lyna Khoudri), is a 20-year-old from an Arab ghetto on the city’s edge and her delicate good looks come with a vocabulary as salty as Esther’s own. Over a combative dinner, she decides to give the girl a break by offering her an internship at the workshop.
From this point, Ohayo’s script flirts with the sentimental but never quite succumbs. The entertainingly caustic dialogue quickens the pace and sharpens the tone. Jade’s friends and neighbours in the ghetto are a colourfully outspoken bunch and Jade doesn’t hold back. She’s critical enough to question the wisdom and morality of allowing yourself to be paid a pittance to make clothes only the rich can afford. Is it so different from sweating on an assembly line producing fast fashion? Esther’s answer to that is the delight she takes in the beauty of the garment and the crucial part she plays in its creation.
With her enduring elegance and hovering air of melancholy, Baye makes an unlikely comic, but her refinement only serves to enhance the effect of Esther’s fondness for the direct approach. Some of her best moments occur during a spontaneous discussion with a couple of teenage boys she encounters on a train. By the end of it, they’ve absorbed the full force of her distaste for hoodies, polar fleece and puffer jackets.
The heart of the film is the workshop where the seamstresses carefully unroll, cut and drape the precious fabric that is their stock-in-trade, absorbing its texture through their fingertips. After this film, you’ll never again regard them as fashion’s bit players.
Haute Couture is in cinemas from June 30.
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