Theme: Exaltavit Humiles
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is the latest release from Focus Features, a company with a filmography of award-winning films and box office hits. Mrs. Harris may not fit either of those categories but what it has makes up in spades for any lack thereof. . . this is a movie with heart.
In a season (Summer, 2022) where people are weary from wars, pandemic, economic and political unrest accompanied by a constant media drumbeat of fear and negativity, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is a powerful antidote. The movie is a two-hour reminder of all that is good, true and beautiful in life. It is the story of one small woman with a mustard seed of faith moving a mountain and transforming lives.
The movie opens with a woman walking alone on a misty London night and stopping on a bridge to look at a small package. The scene sets the stage for the story which follows.
Fog is symbolic of uncertainty, mystery, obscurity, confusion and dreams, all of which describe the place Ada Harris finds herself in on this night in 1957. Having lived obscurely as an “invisible” cleaning woman since her husband, Eddie, went missing in action in 1944, she is confused and uncertain about opening the package which bears his name.
Just as the bridge she stands on is a liminal space between two places, Mrs. Harris finds herself on a precipice between two worlds: past and future, old and new, familiar and unfamiliar. Hoping for the best and fearing the worst, she looks for a sign never dreaming of what that sign will be and where it will take her.
After opening the package which contains her husband’s ring and a telegram confirming his death, Ada returns to her mundane world of cleaning and mending. Putting things away in Lady Dant’s bedroom, she suddenly sees something so extraordinarily beautiful that she has an “out of body” experience. Lying on a chair, sparkling in the sunlight is “Ravissant”, a poem configured in a dress by Christian Dior which literally takes her breath away.
What is it about beauty that has this kind of impact on human beings? C.S. Lewis in his most famous essay The Weight of Glory writes, “We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words---to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”2 Why is this? Because beauty is a sign pointing to another world, a remnant of Eden and a promise of Eden restored in the New Creation when the whole earth will be filled with knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Habakkuk 2:14)
It’s not just beauty, but beautiful clothes are also a sign post to something glorious. In his commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:1-5, Biblical scholar N.T. Wright answers the question as to why humans wear clothes at all. “If Paul is right, there is something deep down within every human being which knows that we are made for more than this. Clothes are an anticipation of our resurrection bodies. The reason we take trouble over them, insofar as we do, is not just pride or a desire to show off, though of course that may come into it as well. At a deeper level than that, it is because we know that we are, in the present, a shadow of the self God wants and intends us to be. Wearing clothes is a sign of the ‘something more’, that fuller existence which we glimpse but cannot, in this life, grasp and possess.”3
Ravissante is a sign pointing to a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17); no wonder Lady Dant tells Ada, “When I put it on nothing else matters.”
There is a beautiful lesson in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris on the grace of God. After winning a small lottery, Ada makes her decision to go to Paris and buy a Christian Dior gown for herself. Knowing Lady Dant paid five hundred pounds for Ravissant, Ada starts saving and working extra jobs for the money she will need. One night she goes with her friend Vi to the dog races and impulsively bets one hundred “quid” on a dog named Hautre Couture, sure that it is another sign. When she loses it all she is ashamed and tears the pages out of her little notebook. She has been trying so hard to earn her way to her dream destination.
Three men show up like angels to provide her with all she needs. First, a man from the military arrives to tell her she will receive a widow’s pension retroactive to when her husband died. Next a policeman appears telling her the owner of a diamond clip she found wants to reward her honesty; and finally, her friend Archie the book maker saved a little of her original bet on #6 and placed it on a winner so all she lost in the race was returned and then some. What would have taken her many hours of hard labor to earn she is given by grace.
Not only was the money she tried to earn gifted to her; the dress she wanted to buy which was stolen from her, first by Madame Avallon and then by Pamela Penrose, was in the end given to her not because she earned it but because her loving kindness to others was being reciprocated by those she had blessed (Luke 6:38).
Temple of Dior
After arriving in Paris, Mrs. Harris spends her first night in the Gare Du Nord train station where she meets three more angels, one of whom walks her to the House of Dior in the morning. Bidding her farewell, he tells her to remember that in Paris “the worker is king”.
The temple is heavily guarded so only the rich and famous may enter, but Mrs. Harris’ kindness opens a way for her to barge in. The workers all identify with and love this common cleaning woman who has come all the way from London to buy a Christian Dior “frock”. The temple pharisaical elite want nothing to do with her and try to shame and humiliate her into leaving, but one by one her virtues win them over. She is truly unique, being one who is the perfect model and also an exceptional seamstress. She fits into the lower-level viewing salon as well as the upper more heavenly realm of couture.
Ultimately Mrs. Harris does more than buy a Christian Dior gown; she sets the House free. Until she arrives, they were in bondage to a system which kept the beauty of Dior for only the rich and famous who often failed to pay for their purchases. Ada’s dream and love for a gown of her own breaks down that system and shows that workers from anywhere can and want to be beautiful queens.
Cinderella is one of the most beloved folk tales of all time. It isn’t difficult to see that the story of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris shares many of the same plot lines with Cinderella. A cleaner/cinder girl left bereft of provision by a dead husband/father is used and abused by wicked step mothers (Lady Dant, Madame Avallon) and step sister (Pamela Penrose). All the lowly workers at Dior (think mice & birds) prepare a gown for her that is destroyed by the self-centered pushy stepsister leaving her alone in her basement apartment/ cold garret, until the fairy godmother arrives with a package from the House of Dior and the red dress she was always meant to have. Off she goes to the Battersea Legion Ball where she is unveiled as the truly kind and beautiful woman she has always been deep inside.
The fairy tale world is a moral place where kindness trumps selfishness, inner beauty outshines faux external glamour, and humility is crucial to love. The exaltation of the humble has its origins in the great canticle known as the Song of Mary . . . The Magnificat.5 In one of the earliest Christian hymns, Mary the mother of Jesus rejoices that she is privileged to give birth to the long-awaited promise to her people, the Messiah. She sings of the transformation of the world by the three great reversals his coming will bring: the proud are reversed by the low estate, the mighty by those of low degree, and the rich by the hungry.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is a beautiful tale of how a lowly servant from London turns topsy-turvy the proud, mighty, and rich House of Dior in Paris, showing in a delightful way the great regard God holds for those of humble estate. (Luke 1:48)
- Ravissante: Beautiful
- C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, page 37
- Paul for Everyone 2Corinthians by Tom Wright, page 54
- Exaltavit Humiles: He hath exalted the humble (Luke 6:52)
- The Magnificat: Luke 6:46-55