This year's dazzling 32nd edition of the New York Jewish Film Festival continues to embrace its artful side with its screening of the Parisian-set, HAUTE COUTURE, written and directed by the dynamic French filmmaker and novelist, Sylvie Ohayon. Within NYJFF's line-up of several visually arresting films -- where attention to design is a critical component within each -- HAUTE COUTURE emerges as a feature that centers women’s work, which explores the anatomy of design, itself, in the storyline, while spotlighting the diligent but largely ‘invisible’ artisans in the background committed to making the world beautiful, even if their own world isn’t quite that. 

Stitching. Shearing. Ironing. Measuring. Pleating. Fitting. Folding. Fabrics. More Fabrics.   

The engaging, worker-bee, neo-Pygmalion drama takes audiences, by the hand, to see composed glimpses of the precise painstaking work and the behind-the-scenes processes at play taken on by the unsung seamstresses at an austere, gleamingly white fashion house on Avenue Montaigne -- in this case, a reimagined Dior. With naturalistic yet piercing lead performances, the audience is drawn in by way of introducing an unlikely but inspiring friendship that strikes up between a sparring pair: acerbic loner Esther (acclaimed actress, Nathalie Baye), an exacting Head Seamstress for Dior, who, having given her life to her job, is now being pushed out, on the verge of retirement; and Jade (rising star, Lyna Khoudri), a fiery, gifted young woman from the economically distressed Parisian banlieues, who knows there’s more to life than grifting and caregiving for her ill-tempered, agoraphobic mother. 

After a disruptive series of events push the women’s paths to cross, Esther -- admiring Jade’s dexterous hands -- unexpectedly decides to pass down her skills; taking on Jade as an initially insolent intern, but giving her young life a new meaning, direction, and perspective. In turn, deeply caring Jade provides a needed family bond for isolated Esther, somewhat filling in the shoes of Esther’s estranged daughter. Crossing racial, ethnic, religious, and economic lines -- with their respective Jewish and Arab backgrounds -- the duo’s relationship evolves into a devoted and intense dressmaking mentor and mentee terrain; a chosen mother and daughter of sorts.

For Esther, passing down a craft is the same as transferring wealth -- perhaps it’s even better, as a skill “can’t be taken away” from you. Nor do you need to suppress or disguise it, from the fear of being relegated to the margins of society. In fact, it can elevate you -- economically, socially, and even spiritually. With this lens, HAUTE COUTURE also takes a raw and often wry look at issues and trappings surrounding class, race, gender, sexuality, aging, and social mobility in today’s France – and many parts of the globe -- where its immigrants, who fuel the non-white-collar work force, remain ignored, reviled, and ‘stuck’ on the fringes.

A testament to the possibilities of the productive, supportive, and generative ways that women can work together,” HAUTE COUTURE’S director Sylvie Ohayon shares how this film speaks to the female relationships in her life. And it is also a nod to Ohayon’s ethnic immigrant background -- Sephardic Jewish and Muslim; her family’s hard-working ethos, and challenging experiences. As well, it’s about her own story of how her unexpected French mentor, an affluent older woman who took Ohayon under her wings, pointed her on to a path where she was able to lift herself out of economic strife, and create the path that she blazes today, as writer and filmmaker.  

HAUTE COUTURE screens tonight at the NY Jewish Film Festival at Walter Reade’s Lincoln Center! Get your tickets here! And spend some time behind the ‘seams’ with the absorbing and incredible ladies of the House…    

By Lisa Collins