Mrs Harris Goes to Paris: the enduring fairy tale myth
Cinema and literature are full of characters who obsessively believe in the power of the perfect garment. For them, this perfect item is not just transformative, but redeeming. Take the wretched Sasha Jansen in Jean Rhys’ 1939 novel Good Morning, Midnight. As she wanders through Paris drinking and low on cash, she often imagines how her life could be improved. She longs “madly, furiously” for a black dress with “wide sleeves embroidered in bright colors – red, green, purple blue”. For her, this dress is a totem of the ideal life, always just out of reach. “If I could get it, everything would be different,” she predicted at one point. “I have to go buy a hat this afternoon, and a dress tomorrow,” she thinks to another. “I have to take the act of transformation.”
An act of transformation, like a magic trick, changes everything in an instant. It suggests that a new me is always just ahead, lingering on a mannequin or waiting in the seams of a dress that just needs to be pulled over the head for the big abracadabra moment. Much of the real change that happens in our lives is slow. It takes time, understanding and effort. It is often painful. No wonder we are captivated by the idea of instant access to beauty, power or attention.
What remains so interesting about Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is that for all its fairy tale trappings, it is more complex in its understanding of transformation. Without saying too much, for Ms. Harris, there’s a distinction between just wearing a dress and knowing it’s yours. It is this latter experience that is the most valuable. She wants a Dior dress “hanging in her closet, to know she was there when she was there, when she was away, to open the door when she returns and find her waiting for her, exquisite to touch, to see and to own.” When she finally visits this legendary atelier, she is thrilled not so much by her own thoughtfulness as by her ability to own such beauty. “Buying a Parisian dress was surely the most wonderful thing that could happen. to a woman.” Although we might see this as the ultimate capitalist fairy tale, there is a tenderness and dignity in Gallico’s approach to Ms. Harris. She is first and foremost an aesthete: someone who deserves her dress ravishing as much as the wealthy ladies whose homes she cleans; a singularly determined woman, moving around the world in pursuit of that perfect feeling of “THIS!!”
Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is in US cinemas from July 15 and in the UK from September 30.
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