Mrs Harris Goes to Paris: a fantasy nostalgia world where good deeds and kindness are rewarded and bad gets its just punishment

Anthony Fabian, “Mrs Harris Goes to Paris” (2022)

A light and lively film harking nostalgically back to an idealised vision of post-WWII Paris, “Mrs Harris Goes to Paris” follows the adventures of a working-class English woman determined to sample and claim her fair share of a rich and wonderful culture that should be hers by right but is denied to her by those who presume to be her social and economic superiors. The action begins in London in 1957, where Ada Harris (Lesley Manville), still pining for her soldier husband who went missing during World War II, cleans the homes of the middle and upper class for a living. In the lavish home of one such employer, Ada discovers and falls in love with a Christian Dior gown in a wardrobe and decides there and then that she must have her own Christian Dior dress. She scrimps and saves – and wastes money gambling on a greyhound race in the hope of winning it – towards that end. She is helped along the way by news that the British government will start paying her the widow’s war pension that is due to her. Once she has saved enough, Ada makes her way to Paris, finds the directions to the Christian Dior offices with the advice of some friendly homeless men, and promptly barges into the showroom to the consternation of office manager Claudine Colbert (Isabelle Huppert) to plonk down the cash for a dress. As haughty regular Dior clients show up to see the latest Dior collection, Colbert tries to hustle Ada out of the way but one client, the Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson), gallantly comes to Ada’s rescue by partnering her and offering her a seat during the exhibition of the collection.

As Ada has already declared she has the cash to pay for a dress, the Dior staff agree to make her one. This requires Ada to stay in Paris for a week, so the Dior office accountant Andre (Lucas Bravo) agrees to put her up at his apartment for the week. From here on, Ada starts to work improbable magic on the lives of those she comes into contact with during her Paris stay. Through growing self-confidence she becomes a true force of personality: she encourages Andre and Natasha (Alba Baptista), a Dior house model, to express their shared interest in Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialist philosophy and eventually their love for each other; and when Colbert decides to fire several workers due to the fashion house being in financial dire straits, Ada leads the entire workforce there to go on strike until Colbert and the designer Dior himself (Philippe Bertin) accept Andre’s ideas on modernising the company’s business and make it more profitable. The Marquis tries to strike up a relationship with Ada but Ada rebuffs him when she realises he is interested in her more for what she symbolises for him rather than in her own unique qualities. Eventually Ada does achieve her heart’s desire and brings home her gorgeous gown – but her own good nature and kindness lead her to make a fateful decision over the dress.

The film plays like a magic realist fairy-tale in which the Cinderella-like Ada Harris overcomes the limitations placed on her class to fulfil a dream that gives her life purpose. She discovers a leadership potential she never knew she had and becomes a catalyst for change in the lives of several people. Even Colbert eventually warms to Ada and shows herself to have a heart of gold when, much later on, she reads of the disaster that befalls Ada’s dress in a newspaper. Based on the original novel “Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris” by Paul Gallico, published in 1958, the film works in a sub-plot of class warfare between proletarian workers and their rich employers: when Ada comes to Paris, the city is struggling through a strike by sanitation workers against their employer, Mr Avallon, whose wealth is on ostentatious and arrogant display through his snooty wife (Guilaine Londez) and their rebellious daughter. Though much of the sub-plot takes place off-screen, it does prove quite useful in the end: Mr Avallon eventually goes to prison for corruption and his wife consequently loses her account with the House of Dior and the dress she ordered now goes begging for a new owner.

Of course, the things that happen to Ada once she sets her heart on owning a Dior dress are improbable but by their very peculiarity end up appearing quite plausible. The film demonstrates that it is possible to achieve your dream by sheer force of determination and good cheer, kindness and helpfulness to all. Once you set things in motion, as long as they are good (because the motivation behind them is pure), other events happen as if an invisible cosmic machine were suddenly set in the process of starting up – and once started, it progresses with a will of its own. Eventually the good that you do to and for others comes back to you tenfold. Of course, this all takes place in a more innocent and much simplified (and idealised) version of the late-1950s world where racial discrimination within the British working classes does not exist, and homeless alcoholics in Paris offer kindly advice to naive British tourists instead of plotting to fleece them of all they have and dump their bodies into the Seine River.

Improbable though the plot is, it works thanks to the enthusiasm and skill of Manville as Ada, and of the supporting cast off whom Manville bounces easily and energetically. The film moves briskly, as if to keep up with its unlikely heroine, and the breathless pace rarely allows much character development apart from Ada’s own progress from self-effacing domestic cleaner to a confident leader who initiates change. Its ending, deviating from the original novel’s ending, may be very contrived but it sits within the logic of its peculiar and quirky fairy-tale universe where good deeds are repaid with more good deeds and bad people get their comeuppance. Still, one wonders what the motivation was to the film’s makers to bring out a movie with an idealised view of Paris in the 1950s and invest it with the concerns and obsessions of left-wing politics of the early 21st century, so much so that this idealised world ends up being even more unrealistic and even a bit patronising towards working-class individuals like Ada, working her solitary way towards freedom and self-actualisation, represented by her desire for a Dior dress, and away from worker-bee anomie. One wonders how Ada will apply her new-found abilities and energy away from her old life and into a new future in Britain.