The elegantly dressed woman stands out in the metro, so far from the center, on the way to the Parisian suburbs. Two young men of Arab origin are seated opposite Esther (Nathalie Baye), scrutinize the rich lady and want to test her. The coat must have been expensive, so they could smell it – someone is already rubbing the fabric between their fingers. The attack looks threatening. When it comes to clothing fabrics, Esther is in her element. It’s a wool coat lined with silk, she lectures, not artificial silk, but of good quality. Unlike the acrylic that young people wear, acrylic stinks: “In your underpants, Esther explains impassively, it certainly doesn’t smell of flowers.
France has voted – and revealed a turmoil various films are currently facing. In “Haute Couture”, social differences are easily seen in the clothes: Esther works as a director at Dior and probably only wears made-to-measure clothes. Jade (Lyna Khoudri) comes from the suburbs and wraps herself in a balloon-shaped fleece, which she closes up to her chin. Jade steals Esther’s purse, regrets her act and returns the bag. This is how the suburbanite and the haute couture seamstress meet.
Jade lives in Seine-Saint-Denis, north of Paris, where the prefabricated buildings are located and where the crime rate is high. Many people there have North African or Black African roots. In the first round of the French presidential election, one in two people voted for left-wing populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. As entertaining as “high fashion” is, the impressions of this neighborhood always seem realistic: Jade doesn’t go to school, but isn’t interested in a job either. His mother has been depressed and living on welfare for ages, his Arab father probably ran away at some point. Going out with her best friend, taking care of her mother, stealing cosmetics or a handbag, that’s what Jade’s daily life looks like.
The director Sylvie Ohayon, herself from the suburbs, approaches the subject with all the realism in a much more optimistic way than, for example, “La fracture” (in German: “In good hands”), another current French film , that the social break already in the bears the original title. “Haute Couture” is a fairy tale between tulle and silk fabrics – Banlieue and J’adore-Dior-Paris should be brought together in a patriotic tale. Esther Jade offers an internship at Dior after the purse is stolen. It’s unbelievable at all times – but that’s how it is when mending tears: you have to vigorously force the edges together.
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Warm fabrics like Esther’s wool coat, they can be armor like Jade’s polar fleece – or turn a suburban girl into a princess for a while. But above all, the tulle and silk fabrics are the chance for Jade to have a self-determined life, as Esther explains to her intern. The tailor wants to pass on her craft and her sense of beauty shortly before retiring, and she is also terribly alone. Jade becomes his surrogate daughter.
“I am a romantic from the suburbs who knew how to emancipate herself”, says the director and evokes her love for France and the relentlessness that she herself worked in her youth. In love, you cannot be sure that you will be loved again, she quotes quoting a friend. Work, on the other hand, always gives you back what you give it.
With this Protestant work ethic, she endows Esther, who has devoted her life entirely to beautiful fabrics and dresses. Nathalie Baye delivers the magnificent sketch of a stubborn woman, very disciplined and passionate about her work, but who also pays a high price for it. As “fabricated” as the history of “Haute Couture” may seem, its female figures are also alive and true: the seamstresses of the workshop, but especially Jade and her best friend Souad (Soumaye Bocoum), who love each other like a sister. Jade ruffles Souad’s frizzy hair.
But Jade’s internship threatens to tear them apart: Souad makes fun of her friend because she wants to work, she herself will live comfortably on social assistance and housing, except for the State – France. “France”, replies Jade, “it’s us”.
So much patriotism might seem like a lie, but as a surprise achievement from a suburban kid, it seems consistent. In a way that may seem naive, the director confirms with her film the self-image of France, that belief, skin color and origin are not so important in this country. In any case, people are not sorted as clearly as it seems: some Dior seamstresses are from the suburbs. And Abel (Adam Bessa), whom Jade falls in love with, is dark-skinned and is actually called Abdel, but has never seen the suburbs. Her mother is a wealthy Arab lawyer.
Haute Couture, F 2021 – Director: Sylvie Ohayon. Book: S. Ohayon, Sylvie Verheyde. Camera: Georges Lechaptois. Editing: Mike Fromentin. With: Nathalie Baye, Lyna Khoudri, Pascale Arbillot, Claude Perron, Soumaye Bocoum, Adam Bessa. Location: Happy Entertainment, 100 mins. Theatrical release: April 21, 2022.