Takes a Trip with Mrs. Harris
by Jay S. Jacobs
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is a sweet and charming look at life in the Paris fashion world in the 1950s, and yet the new film version of it does feel strangely contemporary. Based on a beloved 1958 novel of the same name by Paul Gallico (although in the US the book title was stylized to be Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris), it tells the story of an industrious lower-class London charwoman who takes a trip to the City of Lights to indulge in buying her dream dress from the legendary fashion House of Dior. Of course, things are never as easy as one would hope, but through her spunk and spirit Mrs. Harris breaks down the defenses of the haute couture snobs and helps to save the legendary business.
Bringing the book to life is co-writer and director Anthony Fabian, a British producer and director who has helmed many documentaries and short films. Mrs. Harris is his third feature film following 2008’s Skin and the 2013 film Louder Than Words. His new film is one of the buzz movies of the summer.
A few days before the release of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, we sat down with Fabian to discuss the film.
I’ve always been fascinated by Paul Gallico’s writing. He could do stories as varied as Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris and The Snow Goose and The Poseidon Adventure. What was it about Mrs. Harris that made you interested in adapting it into a film?
That’s a great point, Jay. Some people look at my output as a filmmaker and make a similar remark that there’s an eclectic variety to the films that I make. So, maybe Paul and I have an affinity. I certainly am a big fan of Paul Gallico. That was really my starting point, because one of my favorite childhood books was a book he wrote called Jenny. When I signed with my manager, one of my motivators was that he also managed the Paul Gallico estate. I’m still interested in the possibility of adapting Jenny one of these days. He’s the one who introduced me to Mrs. Harris. I didn’t know these characters at all. I knew, as you said, The Snow Goose, The Poseidon Adventure and several other of his books. The thing that drew me to this was twofold. One was the irresistibility of the character, because she’s just so utterly delightful and quirky, and charming, and honest, and decent and kind, and fun, and mad. I just loved all of these different aspects of her. I wanted to bear down on what it was that made her obsessed with this dress. Stories of obsession are quite fascinating. Getting into the psychology of what makes somebody obsessed with something is extremely interesting. But also, I have grown up partly in Paris. My father moved to Paris when I was seven. So it’s a culture that I was very familiar with, and I felt that I would really be able to do justice to the French side of the story, as well as the British. So, that was one of the big motivators for me.
What was it like going back to Paris as an adult and being able to shoot there?
Well, I’ve never really left Paris. (laughs) It’s always been part of my landscape. Between you and me, it’s become increasingly nightmarish to film there. Because it’s such a crowded city, it’s very hard to get the permissions and regulations. It’s hugely expensive. So, although we did do some of the essential filming in Paris, we shot the majority of the film in Budapest, which often doubles as Paris, and is, in many ways, much more film friendly. It just so happens that my mother is Hungarian, and I’m half Hungarian. So there was a sense of coming home about that as well. The crew that we had was spectacular. As I said, we couldn’t have felt more welcomed by Hungary. It was during lockdown, so it was a really difficult time. We were so lucky that Hungary was in a way the last European country to succumb to the virus. So at the time that we were there, there were fewer restrictions. Apart from a pretty intense COVID testing protocol and mask wearing, we were able to get through the entire production without shutting down once, which I think very few productions that shot during COVID can say. So yeah, filming in Paris has its wonderful aspects. And again, during COVID we were lucky enough that there was a curfew. So for example, when we were filmingat twilight on the keys by the Pont Neuf, there were no tourists and there was no traffic. That was something you couldn’t buy under normal circumstances. So we were very lucky in many respects making the film.
What was it like to recreate 1950s haute couture Paris? For example, I know that your House of Dior set apparently was pretty much an exact replica of the real thing.
Absolutely. I thought that given the people can look at photographs and watch YouTube videos of the House of Dior and the shows, it was very important to get those details right and for people to actually believe in what they were seeing. Also, because this is a fairy tale, but it’s set in reality as well, so there’s a magic realism to the tone of the film. Part of the realism is achieved by properly and accurately representing the House of Dior. Not only in terms of the physical building which as you say, we recreated that interior exactly. We recreated the exterior through the CGI, etc. But also, we recreated the dresses in the show, pretty much exactly – apart from the three hero dresses in the film, which are what I would call Jenny Beavan Dior. (Ed. note: Jenny Beavan was the film’s costume designer.)
In many ways, Mrs. Harris and Natasha and even Claudine are very similar. People look at them and think they understand what they’re about. But they’re really different. What is it as a storyteller about characters who weren’t not what they originally seem that is intriguing to you?
Everybody has experienced the sense of wearing a mask, of presenting a certain person to the world. What’s so special about the story is that there is total congruence between who Ada says she is and who she really is. Because of that, she has the power to unmask people who are in some ways, presenting something other than themselves to the world or don’t have the courage to be themselves. Because she has the courage, she encourages other people to be courageous. She has that magical effect on Natasha, on Andre, and on Madame Colbert there, exactly, for that reason.
The film also looked at class distinctions and the tussle between the extremely rich and the working class. How do you think that the world of Mrs. Harris speaks to today’s culture?
We still live in an incredibly divided society. If anything, the divide between rich and poor is getting wider. We talk about the 1% of the wealthiest in society. I don’t think that these issues of class and wealth division have in any way gone away. I think everyone will be able to relate to that. One of the reasons why Mrs. Harris is so appealing as a character is because she is an underdog, and she struggles. Many people will be able to relate to her struggle and root for her. The power of the film and the story is that people very much want her to succeed. When in some form or other against all the odds, she does succeed, it’s an incredible catharsis for the viewer.
You had such a great cast in the film. You got to work with people like Lesley Manville, Isabelle Huppert and Jason Isaacs, and even younger people like Alba Baptista and Lucas Bravo. What was putting together the cast like and why did you feel that they were all worked in their roles?
I don’t often pat myself on the back as a director about what I do, and I have my own insecurities. But I think when it comes to casting, I know that one of my special skills. (laughs) My guiding principle was a little bit looking at the character of Ada and trying to be as authentic as possible in all of the casting. It was an absolute red line for me that all of the French characters had to be French actors, which is not something that all English-speaking movies do with French characters. Of course, Isabelle Huppert is an absolute dream. We’ve been lucky that she said yes. She doesn’t often do supporting roles, if ever, but I think she was really touched by the story. [She] admired Lesley and she and I had a really good connection when we first met. Also, I think, the opportunity to do an English language film, although she does get offered English language roles, it doesn’t come along every day for her. So she was just willing to downgrade if you like, into a supporting role for us. (laughs again)
That was good fortune.
The other characters, I can’t think of anybody who could have played the Marquis better than Lambert Wilson, who himself trained as an actor in London. Unlike many actors, he’s very fluent in English and has a beautiful accent and an English accent to boot. So that was just perfect for the character because he went to boarding school as a young boy so he would speak English like that.
How did you find Alba?
Alba was a real discovery for me. She was somebody who was proposed by the casting directors, both the French and the British casting director. I wanted somebody who wasn’t French and wasn’t English. Because we were in COVID, I couldn’t reach too far outside of Europe for who that might be. So I said, “Look, why can’t she be Latina or, or Italian or something that is a little bit different?” They came up with Alba, who’s half Portuguese, half Brazilian, and who had just burst on the scene with Warrior Nun. From the moment of our first conversation, I just knew she had all of the qualities of this character, because she is very uncertain in some ways. She also is so exquisitely beautiful, and she is extremely well read and bookish. She said to me that she was thinking of taking some time off from acting to study philosophy. So that was just an insane coincidence with the character.
Ultimately, I was looking for people who were close to the part, or who could at least find some access to the part. Maybe the biggest leap, if you like, is Jason Isaacs, who is not Northern Irish, or a bookie, or working class or any of the things that he plays. But Jason is an absolute chameleon, and he can do any accent convincingly without even thinking about it. He’s a bit of a miracle in that way. He gave me the confidence to allow him to stretch a little bit into something that isn’t really himself. But I must say, Lesley isn’t Mrs. Harris either. She’s very different from that person. She just a phenomenal actress who knows how to access those parts of herself to create that character.
After the craziness in the world in the last two years, why do you think it’s important for nice light, feel good entertainment like Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris to get out into the world?
We’re living in an incredibly pressured, painful, difficult time. Economically, and climate issues, and there’s the war in the Ukraine. There’s the rise of right-wing populism and so on. And now in America, the intense culture wars that are happening in this country. With all of this pressure and all of this stress, I think people desperately need the movies to be some form of escapism from all of that. I wanted to create something that was both as far away from people’s daily realities as possible, but also contained elements that they could relate to. [Elements] that they could take away and be inspired by so that they would be uplifted when they come out of the cinema. Right now we all need to feel uplifted. It’s not just a matter of pure entertainment we want. We want to be inspired to be better people to feel better about ourselves. I think this film gives some opportunity to do that.
Copyright ©2022 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 14, 2022.
Photo #1 © 2021. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.
All other photos © 2021 Dávid Lukács/Ada Films Ltd – Harris Squared Kft. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.