By Eleanor Ringel Cater
“Every day’s my lucky day!” chirps Mrs. Harris, the nauseatingly cheerful ‘50s charwoman who is the protagonist of “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,” a nauseatingly time-warped film about how the right fancy dress can change your life.
Of course, it’s not really about that. It’s more about how a nauseatingly cheerful (sorry) British cleaning lady can change everyone else’s life thanks to her plucky outlook.
Mrs. Harris (the excellent Lesley Manville, slumming) bustles – yes, she’s the sort of middle-aged woman who bustles – from one client to the next, cleaning their homes and, occasionally, their lives with her unfailingly optimistic point of view, simple honesty and relentless work ethic. True, she’s a bit lonely – Mr. Harris never came back from the war (but was never reported dead either). Still, she’s the practical type, making do with what’s at hand.
Until, one day, she’s cleaning house for a selfish rich woman who somehow never manages to pay her. And she spies a dress. Not just any dress, but a garment of the Gods from the House of Dior. A dream is born: to go to Paris and buy her very own Christian Dior.
As you may have guessed from the title, after some, um “endearing” setbacks, she makes it to Paris and, thanks to some, um, “endearing” mix-ups, she ends up the heart and soul of Dior. She even gets to meet Dior himself who, Mrs. Harris notes, “looks just like my milkman.”
Though grounded in post-war, pre-Beatles England at its dowdiest, the movie’s true setting is the gossamer (and somehow condescending) fairy tale of the upbeat nobody – female division – who’s a blessing to everyone she encounters. One of Britain’s most admired and respected performers – she was Oscar-nominated for “Phantom Thread, a very different view of fashion and female power in the ‘50s – Manville charges through her clichéd role with charm and assurance. Without her, the film would probably be unwatchable.
And what it does to the legendary Isabelle Huppert is almost unforgivable. Cast as Manville’s adversary – what’s French for Mean Girl? – Huppert is the fashion house’s snotty director, who, it turns out, has her own burdens to bear. Yes, this is the sort of picture where everybody has their reasons (to rip off Renoir), but said reasons are flimsy and, in the current retro political climate, frankly a bit frightening.
That’s a good deal of the problem with “Mrs. Harris.” Hey, I’m as susceptible to a glam fashion show as anyone – and boy, are ‘50s Dior fashions beyond glam. However, the movie can be a disturbing throwback to a time when a pretty dress can make up for a multitude of ugly cultural preconceptions. It’s a little like watching “The Help,” Bizarro World version, i.e., the maids love being just this side of slaves.
Granted, I’m grafting social criticism onto a movie that intends to be nothing more than ingratiating fluff. But you have to wonder who the filmmakers think is the audience for this. And I’m afraid – terrified – they might think it’s me.
Next time, could we just stick with the fashion show? The dresses really are to die for.
“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” currently is showing in metro theaters.