Review: ‘Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,’ starring Lesley Manville, Isabelle Huppert, Lambert Wilson, Alba Baptista, Lucas Bravo, Ellen Thomas and Jason Isaacs

July 11, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured in front: Lambert Wilson, Lesley Manville, Guilaine Londez, Dorottya Ilosvai and Alba Baptista in “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” (Photo by Dávid Lukács/Focus Features)

“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris”

Directed by Anthony Fabian

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1957, in London and Paris, the comedy/drama film “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A widowed housekeeper in London goes to Paris, where she wants to fulfill her dream of buying a haute couture Dior gown, but she experiences obstacles and bigotry from snobs who think she isn’t worthy because of her working-class background.

Culture Audience: “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of star Lesley Manville and the book on which the movie is based, as well as to people who are interested in 1950s high fashion history and stories about working-class people navigating in upper-class society.

Isabelle Huppert and Roxane Duran in “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” (Photo by Dávid Lukács/Focus Features)

Despite a tendency to be cloying and cliché, the comedy/drama “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” has exuberant charm that’s hard to resist. Lesley Manville shines in this fairytale-like story about a woman who believes it’s never too late to chase a dream. On the surface, her dream is to buy a haute couture Dior gown, but the gown represents something much bigger to her: an ability to go outside her comfort zone to get what she wants in the pursuit of happiness.

Directed by Anthony Fabian, “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” is based on Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris.” The novel was also made into a 1992 TV-movie of the same name, starring Angela Lansbury in the title role. In the “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” movie directed by Fabian, the title character is played by Manville. Fabian co-wrote the movie’s adapted screenplay with Carroll Cartwright, Olivia Hetreed and Keith Thompson.

“In Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,” it’s 1957, and Mrs. Harris is Ada Harris, a widowed housekeeper who’s in her 50s and who lives in London. (“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” was filmed in London and Paris—the two cities where the story takes place—but the movie was also filmed in Budapest to simulate Paris in the 1950s.) Ada dreams of having a more glamorous life. Ada’s often cheerful demeanor often hides her sadness over not knowing what happened to her husband Eddie, a military man who went missing in action during World War II in 1944.

Because Eddie hasn’t contacted her for all of these years, he’s presumed dead, but Ada can’t bring herself to face this probability. Ada, who lives alone and has no children, has not had a special man in her life since Eddie disappeared. She has long since given up on finding love because she thinks because of her age, occupation and physical appearance, she’s not very desirable.

“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” spends a little too much time in the first third of the movie showing Ada stuck in her drab routine life in London. There are repetitive scenes of her going to a bridge at night, where she talks out loud to her long-lost husband Eddie. Viewers of “Mrs. Harris Go to Paris” will have to have some patience before the movie gets to what the movie’s title is all about.

Ada’s best friend is Vi Butterfield (played by Ellen Thomas), a Caribbean immigrant who is around the same age as Ada. Vi (who also lives alone and has no children) is as confident as Ada is insecure. When Ada and Vi go out together at social clubs, Vi often has to give Ada pep talks to help boost Ada’s self-esteem. When they go out to these clubs, Ada is more likely to play cards at a table than to mingle and dance.

It’s at this nightclub, when Ada and Vi are sitting together at a table, where Ada gets the courage to open a package from the U.K. military that she has been dreading to open in front of Vi. Inside the package are a telegram and some of her husband Eddie’s personal possessions, including what appears to be a university ring.

Ada reads the telegram out loud to Vi. The telegram confirms that Eddie is dead. He was killed in action near Warsaw, Poland, on March 2, 1944. Ada is saddened but not too surprised. After getting this news, she goes to the bridge again and stares mournfully at Eddie’s ring, as if she’s trying get closure over the reality that Eddie won’t be coming back.

Someone whom Ada and Vi see often is their mutual friend Archie (played by Jason Isaacs), a middle-aged local bookie whose social manners are a little rough around the edges. Archie is a bachelor who thinks of himself as a seductive ladies’ man. Whenever, Ada and Vi see Archie at a nightclub, he always seems to have a different woman as his date.

During one scene in the movie, Archie has brought his two dogs Spring and Summer to the nightclub where Ada and Vi frequently go. Archie asks Ada and Vi to look after the two dogs while he goes on the dance floor with his date. Ada sighs and says to Vi about how the men at this club don’t see them as attractive enough: “We’re invisible women.” Vi’s sassy response is: “Speak for yourself! They see me coming!”

Two of the women who are Ada’s regular clients are very different from each other. Pamela Penrose (played by Rose Williams) is a 23-year-old aspiring actress who looks like a cross between Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe. Pamela is constantly worried about auditions and whether or not she will ever make it big as a movie actress, which is her life goal. Even though Pamela rents an apartment that she can barely afford, she pays Ada on time and appreciates Ada’s cheerful kindness.

The same can’t be said for Lady Dant (played by Anna Chancellor), a middle-aged socialite who spends lavishly but who has come up with many excuses not to pay Ada for the past several weeks. The latest excuse is that Lady Dant has to pay for her daughter’s wedding, which Lady Dant claims is financially draining. When Ada tactfully and politely asks Lady Dant when she can be paid the money that’s owed to Ada, Lady Dant is haughtily dismissive and scolds Ada to be more patient and understanding. Lady Dant also tells Ada that her work hours will be reduced, effective immediately.

Christian McKay is under-used in a small role as Giles Newcombe, one of Ada’s housecleaning clients. A running gag in the movie is that Ada often passes by Mr. Newcombe on a flight of stairs as Ada is arriving and he is leaving the building with a woman who looks young enough to be his daughter, whom he always introduces as his “niece.” The implication is that Mr. Newcombe is married, these young women are really his mistresses, and they have their trysts at the apartment he has in this building.

Ada and Mr. Newcome always greet each other in a friendly manner, with Ada seeming to know that Mr. Newcombe isn’t the “uncle” of these women. Ada is discreet and plays along with the charade though, because Mr. Newcombe is always kind to her. Ada doesn’t judge whatever Mr. Newcombe’s extramarital activities might be because she doesn’t know all the details of his marriage. It’s also this movie’s way of showing that Ada isn’t a nosy gossip.

One day, Ada is doing some housecleaning in Lady Dant’s home, when she sees a stunning floral print sequined dress displayed on a bed. Ada is enchanted by this dress and can’t resist picking up the dress and holding it up to herself while she looks in a mirror. Lady Dant catches Ada admiring the dress, but Lady Dant doesn’t seem to mind.

Lady Dant brags to Ada that the gown is haute couture Dior and that she paid £500 for the dress during a recent trip to Paris. Lady Dant orders Ada not to tell Lady Dant’s husband about this purchase because he will think that she overpaid. As soon as Ada hears about how and where Lady Dant got the dress, it sparks an a near-obsession for Ada to do the same thing.

Ada begins saving her money for a trip to Paris. She also starts a small business on the side called Invisible Mending, where she does seamstress work and other sewing jobs. However, Ada gets a temporary setback when she places a losing £100 bet at a dog-racing track where Archie works.

But then, in an “only in a movie” sequence of events, three things happen literally within minutes of each other that change her fortunes: (1) Ada gets a visit from a military official telling her that the military owes her back payments for being a war widow; (2) Ada gets reward money for returning a lost diamond pin; and (3) Archie shows up at her home to tell her that he actually placed her bet on the racing dog that won, not the losing dog she wanted to bet money on for the race.

And so, with enough money to travel and buy her dream Dior haute couture gown, Mrs. Harris goes to Paris. At the train station in Paris, she meets three homeless winos, and one of them is kind enough to show here where the House of Dior is. Ada notices that there’s a lot of garbage on the streets of Paris, so the homeless man tells her that it’s because garbage collectors are currently on strike. This worker strike is used as a few plot developments later in the movie.

Outside the House of Dior, a model who’s running late for a fashion show, stumbles out of car and trips in front of the entrance. Her name is Natasha (played by Alba Baptista), and she accidentally drops her purse without noticing. Ada picks up the purse and goes inside the building to return it to Natasha, who is grateful.

But those pleasantries are about to end when the pompous House of Dior director Claudine Colbert (played by Isabelle Huppert) notices that Ada is treating the House of Dior like a regular retail store, where people can just walk right in and buy what they want if they have the money for it. Madame Colbert snootily tells Ada that Dior’s haute couture customers have invitation-only access.

Ada most definitely does not have an invitation. Ada gets upset and hastily explains to Madame Colbert that she’s a housekeeper from London who saved up all of her money for this trip and she won’t leave without buying a Dior haute couture gown. When Ada takes out the wads of cash that she has with her, Madame Colbert is even more disgusted by what she sees as crassness from Ada.

However, a society gentleman named Marquis de Chassagne (played by Lambert Wilson), who has been invited to Dior’s upcoming haute couture collection show, notices Ada’s plight and generously tells Ada that she can be his guest at the show. Madame Colbert is miffed, but there’s nothing she can do about it. Unbeknownst to the general public, Dior has secretly been having financial problems, so Madame Colbert tells Dior accountant André Fauvel (played by Lucas Bravo), who has been observing Madame Colbert’s attempted shunning of Ada, that at least they might get a sale out of Ada being there.

Another person who’s annoyed that a “common” housekeeper is attending the show is a spiteful socialite named Madame Avallon (played by Guilaine Londez), who is attending the show with her pouty young adult daughter Mathilde Avallon (played by Dorottya Ilosvai). Madame Avallon gets even more irritated when she sees that Ada will be sitting next to her at the show. And guess who wants the same gown as Ada?

Ada is dazzled by the runway show, but two gowns in particular get her the most excited. Her first choice is a red stunner called Temptation. Ada also literally gasps when she sees an emerald green gown called Eden. Madame Colbert makes sure that Madame Avallon gets the Temptation gown. Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan did top-notch, award-worthy costume for “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.”

As a consolation for not getting the Temptation gown, Ada is told that she can be fitted for the Eden gown. However, these fittings would require Ada to be in Paris for several more days. Ada can’t afford to stay in Paris for longer than she had planned, As a show of generous support, André invites Ada to stay for free at the house of his sister, who is away on a trip. Ada eagerly accepts this offer.

A meticulous Dior atelier employee named Monsieur Carré (played by Bertrand Poncet) oversees the fittings for Ada. Predictably, he is sometimes irritated by Ada’s ignorance of haute couture traditions and customs. Fashion icon Christian Dior (played by Philippe Bertin) makes a few brief appearances, as this movie depicts the last year of Dior’s life. (On October 24, 1957, Dior died of a heart attack at the age of 52.) As expected, Ada is star-struck to be in the presence of Dior.

House of Dior’s seamstresses, including seamstress director Marguerite (played by Roxane Duran), are charmed by Ada’s working-class pluckiness in the face of upper-class elitism, so they are rooting for her behind the scenes. While Ada is starting to befriend Isabel and André, she notices that André has romantic feelings for Isabel. And you know what that means: Ada is going to try to play matchmaker for André and Isabel. Meanwhile, Marquis de Chassagne has taken a liking to Ada and asks her out on a date. Could this be the beginning of a romance for him and Ada?

“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” often goes down a very formulaic route, but it’s always watchable, due in large part to the talented cast members, led by Manville. Huppert plays her “villain” role to the hilt, but Madame Colbert shows some vulnerability and warmth later in the movie. Not everything in the movie is predictable, but there’s enough familiarity in how this story is told that “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” is like having comfort food with a longtime friend.

Focus Features will release “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” in U.S. cinemas on July 15, 2022.

Review: ‘Benedetta,’ starring Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia, Lambert Wilson and Olivier Rabourdin

February 5, 2022

by Carla Hay

Daphne Patakia and Virginie Efira in “Benedetta” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Benedetta”

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Culture Representation: Taking place in 17th century Italy, the dramatic film “Benedetta” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy who are connected in some way to the Roman Catholic Church.

Culture Clash: A nun, who claims to have visions of Jesus Christ visiting her, gets involved in a taboo sexual relationship with another woman living in the convent.

Culture Audience: “Benedetta” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in movies that have provocative but ultimately not very groundbreaking depictions of how religion and sex are handled by the Catholic Church.

Charlotte Rampling (pictured in front, at far left) in “Benedetta” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Benedetta” is not as subversive as perhaps the filmmakers want it to be, because this dramatic depiction of a true story is often campy and predictable. The intrigue is in the cast members’ performances, which are never boring. In its observations about religious hypocrisy and misogyny, “Benedetta” also strives to have more meaning than just being known as a “lesbian nun” movie. “Benedetta” (which also has the title of “Blessed Virgin,” depending on where the movie is released) had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival and its North American premiere at the 2021 New York Film Festival.

Paul Verhoeven directed “Benedetta” and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with David Birke. The movie, which takes place in 17th century Italy, is based on Judith C. Brown’s non-fiction book “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.” That “lesbian nun” is Benedetta Carlini (played by Virginie Efira), who is eventually labeled as “insane” by church officials because of her adamant claims that Jesus Christ appears to her in visions. Benedetta also claims to have stigmata wounds, as proof that she communicates with Jesus. About the same time Benedetta has been branded as mentally ill, Benedetta is revealed to be having a sexual relationship with a nun-in-training who’s living in the same convent: Bartomolea (played by Daphne Patakia), who was the one who initiated the affair, according to how this movie depicts it.

“Benedetta” essentially leaves it open to interpretation if Benedetta would have been treated as harshly if there was no sexual activity in her scandal. Would she have been viewed as just a harmless oddball with an active imagination of communicating with Jesus Christ? The movie could also make people think about the implications of gender inequality: When a (male) Catholic priest is caught breaking the vows of celibacy, is the Catholic Church (and society in general) more likely to overlook it or be quicker to forgive a priest, compared to a (female) Catholic nun who does the same thing?

One point the movie definitely makes is that women can be just as misogynistic as men can be when it comes to judging other women. “Benedetta” predictably has a “battle-axe” villain nun named Sister Felicita, the Abbess (played by Charlotte Rampling), who is all too eager to get involved in the downfall of Benedetta, because Benedetta dared to question Sister Felicita’s authority. There are also obvious signs that Sister Felicita felt threatened that the younger and more physically attractive Benedetta would become more popular with the male clergy in charge of making decisions in the convent’s power structure.

Another antagonist to Benedetta is a nun named Sister Christina (played by Louise Chevillotte), who is the first person in the convent to find out about the secret affair between Bendetta and Bartomolea. And it happens around the time that Benedetta’s visions of Christ have made her a rising star at the convent. It all leads to a predictable showdown of back-and-forth accusations and female cattiness, presided over by an all-male group of Catholic Church officials who will decide who’s telling the truth and what will happen to Benedetta.

Two of the officials who will decide Benedetta’s fate are Alfonso Cecchi (played by Olivier Rabourdin) and the Nuncio (played by Lambert Wilson), who doesn’t have a first name in the movie. Alfonso, who has ambitions to become a bishop, is more inclined to believe Benedetta’s claims. The Nuncio, who acts as a government messenger/ambassador for the Pope, gives a lot of weight to the opinions of Sister Felicita, who wants to be his political ally. Even though the Nuncio has taken the vow of celibacy, there are hints that he has violated of that vow, such as having sex with prostitutes and getting his maid pregnant.

“Benedetta” takes perhaps a little too much time in the beginning of the movie to over-explain Benedetta’s restrictive childhood. The movie shows that Benedetta was a very devout Catholic who adhered to the tenets of the Catholic religion, but she was already claiming to have special communication with deities. One of the more interesting aspects of “Benedetta” is how it keeps viewers guessing over whether or not Benedetta was really a non-conformist “psychic,” a mentally ill eccentric, or a very skilled con artist.

At 12 or 13 years old, Benedetta (played by Elena Plonka) travels with her father Giuliano (played by David Clavel) and her mother Midea (played by Clotilde Courau) to the city of Pescia so that she can get her confirmation veil. On the way there, the family is stopped by some soldiers, who steal a necklace from the family. Benedetta scolds the soldiers that they will be punished by the Virgin Mary for this theft. And just like that, bird excrement lands on the face of the soldier who has the necklace, and he gives it back. It’s one of many campy moments in the movie.

Viewers soon find out that Benedetta’s parents have essentially sold her to a convent. Because a nun is considered a non-sexual “bride” of Jesus Christ, Giuliano wants to be a hardball negotiator with Sister Felicita for how much of a “dowry” he can get from the Catholic Church. Giuliano asks Sister Felicita: “Is the bride of Christ worth less than 100 [in currency]?”

Another campy moment arrives when an adolescent Benedetta (who is now living at the convent) begins praying to a statue of the Virgin Mary, which is wearing a veil that extends down to the Virgin Mary’s chest. Suddenly, the statue falls on Benedetta, and the statue’s veil comes off to expose the Virgin Mary’s naked breasts. Benedetta than starts sucking on the breasts. This movie is not subtle at all in telegraphing what will happen later in the story.

The movie then fast-forwards 18 years later. Benedetta is now a headstrong nun who often clashes with Sister Felicita. One day, a woman in her early 20s bursts into the convent because she is being chased by her abusive father (played by Frédéric Sauzay), who calls her a “harlot.” The frightened woman is Bartomolea, who will eventually become Benedetta’s lover.

Bartomolea begs to be taken into the convent, but an unsympathetic Sister Felicita says that Bartomolea can only stay if her father pays a dowry. Her father (who doesn’t have a name in the movie) reluctantly obliges. Bartomelea than begins to live in the convent as a novitiate. Bartomolea and Benedetta share the same bedroom space, where their beds are separated by a thin curtain.

At first, Benedetta treats the younger Bartomolea as somewhat of a friend/protégée. Bartomolea confides in Bendetta, by telling her that after Bartomolea’s mother died in an unnamed plague, Bartomolea’s father made Bartomolea become his “wife.” In other words, Bartomolea was the victim of incest rape. Having a domineering and controlling father who abandoned them in a convent is something that both Bartomolea and Benedetta have in common, so it seems to strengthen their bond that the two women start to develop with each other.

Bartomolea has not taken the vows of celibacy as a nun, so she’s not as invested as Benedetta is in abstaining from sex. Bartomolea also isn’t as timid as she first seemed when she arrived at the convent. It isn’t long before Bartomolea makes it known to Benedetta that she’s sexually attracted to Benedetta. Benedetta thinks it’s sinful for a nun to act on any sexual urges, so she resists Bartomolea’s sexual advances. Benedetta also tells Bartomolea that she has visions of Jesus Christ saying that it’s a mortal sin to break her vows.

Over time though, Benedetta’s visions change. In Benedetta’s new visions, Jesus Christ begins to tell her that the previous Jesus that Benedetta was seeing is a false prophet. And soon afterward, Benedetta and Bartomolea are having secret sexual trysts in their bedroom. One of the more talked-about aspects of “Benedetta” is how a figurine of the Virgin Mary is used as a sex toy. The movie’s sex scenes leave no mystery about what goes on in these sexual encounters.

Regardless of how audiences might react to the movie’s explicit sexual content, one of the best things about “Benedetta” is that it shows how sex and religion are both used as ways to have power and control over people. Efira’s opaque performance as the rebellious Benedetta and Charlotte Rampling’s assured performance as the imperious Sister Felicita are fascinating to watch for these reasons. For all the attention that this movie is getting about the sex scenes, it’s worth noting that no matter what happens between Benedetta and Bartolomea, the power struggle between Benedetta and Sister Felicita will have a more lasting impact on all of their lives.

Benedetta’s visions of Jesus Christ aren’t all sweetness and light. She has a recurring nightmare that she’s being hunted down by men who try to rape her, and Jesus comes to her rescue. Of course, anyone can interpret these scenes as the would-be rapists being symbolic of patriarchy trying to take power away from Benedetta and any woman. At first, Benedetta sees the Catholic Church as her savior (with Jesus coming to her rescue in these visions), but eventually she’s conflicted and disillusioned over how much she should believe in the Catholic Church.

These attempted rape scenes are part of a pattern of filmmaker Verhoeven’s fixation on showing the rape or attempted rape of women in almost all of his movies. He’s gotten a lot of criticism over the years for his very “male gaze” films, where women’s naked bodies are used for explicit, full-frontal sex scenes and/or violence, but the men in Verhoeven’s movies almost never have full-frontal nudity. It’s a double standard that Verhoeven doesn’t seem interested in acknowledging or ending in his movies.

As much as Verhoeven points out in “Benedetta” how the patriarchy of the Catholic Church is responsible for a lot of sexual hypocrisy that shames women and absolves men, Verhoeven has made an entire career of doing films about some type of female exploitation. If not for the quality of talent that Verhoeven works with in casts and crews, many of Verhoeven’s so-called “artsy” movies would be B-movie schlock. That’s why “Benedetta,” although it has very good acting, is by no means a cinematic masterpiece.

IFC Films released “Benedetta” in select U.S. cinemas on December 3, 2021. The movie was released on digital and VOD on December 21, 2021.

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