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BIF&ST 2021

Sylvie Ohayon • Director of Haute couture

“Knowing how to do something can really help a person feel happy with themselves”


- We seized the opportunity to speak with the French writer-director about high fashion and the importance of learning a profession on the occasion of her new film’s presentation

Sylvie Ohayon  • Director of Haute couture
(© Bif&st)

Haute couture [+see also:
interview: Sylvie Ohayon
film profile
, French writer-director Sylvie Ohayon’s second feature film after Papa Was Not a Rolling Stone [+see also:
film profile
, relates the encounter and subsequent relationship which unfolds between Esther (Nathalie Baye), a head machinist close to retirement at the Dior fashion house, and Jade (Lyna Khoudri), a troubled, young woman from the Parisian banlieue, whom Esther decides to help by teaching her a trade. The film was presented at Bari’s 12th Bif&st.

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Cineuropa: Given the title, Haute couture, people might expect a more frivolous film, but it’s actually a deep comedy which explores the notion of passing on skills, the importance of work and how women can help one another.
Sylvie Ohayon: I mainly made this film for my daughter, Jade, whom I’ve had a tricky relationship with, especially during her teenage years. She would push me away and I would say: “Jade, you’re rejecting me as a mother, so you need to find another female figure who can help you grow up and become what you want to be”. What I was trying to say to my daughter was that I want her to be happy and for her to find someone who can help her learn a trade, because a trade can save your life. As someone says in the film: “Everyone talks about work; I want to give you a profession”. Knowing how to do something is what can really help a person feel happy with themselves.

At what point did you decide to explore this theme within the world of high fashion?
A few years ago, I accompanied a friend of mine to Chanel because we had a dilemma on our hands: she was supposed to be getting married, but she’d ended up pregnant a few months before the wedding, so she needed to alter her wedding dress to hide her stomach. I remember that, at a certain point, the dressmaker turned up and started speaking with this strong Parisian accent – along the lines of Edith Piaf, to give you an idea – but then, she started working, and her hands were like magic; I was blown away by her skill. I wanted to transpose this into a film. On top of that were the issues I had with my daughter: when I thought about the type of woman that could make her happy, this was the woman I imagined. That aside, I’m proud of my country and its craftsmanship, just like I love Italy; I come here a lot: they’re both beautiful countries. As for Dior, they immediately consented to the development of my film, without conditions. They just wanted to read the screenplay.

The film depicts the work that goes on in fashion houses in great detail. How did you research this?
There was a huge amount of research involved at Chanel, at Dior; I spoke with dressmakers, I asked them to tell me about their lives. I asked the House of Dior whether they could let me inside their ateliers so that I could see how they worked. What I asked these women was not to tell me things that I could find in a book or a dictionary, but to pass on a few tricks of the trade, like how you grease a needle so that it passes through fabric more easily, for example.

We see the banlieue on the one hand and the House of Dior on the other. How did you develop the film’s visual aspect?
The idea was to use warm colours when the girl is at home, in the projects, and to make the atelier colder and more magnificent. The ateliers don’t look like that in real-life. Dior’s ateliers look like clinics; everything is white because they need the light to reflect. But I wanted a bit of Pompadour and Haussmann in my film, some of the old history of French fashion, so I reconstructed the atelier based on my own ideas, as if it were a temple or the Palace of Versailles.

How did you choose your two protagonists?
To begin with, I had Catherine Deneuve in mind, but very soon afterwards I thought of Nathalie Baye, who’s a brilliant actress. I’d seen and liked Lyna Khoudri in Papicha [+see also:
film review
interview: Mounia Meddour
film profile
, but I wasn’t convinced by the choice of the usual Arab girl from the banlieue. But then I thought to myself that we come from the same so-called rough areas of northern Paris, so, fundamentally, we share the same background; she knows what it means to live there. As for the auditions, I didn’t hold them in the usual way; instead, in true French style, I invited people to dinner, and we chatted over a good meal.

You’re primarily a writer, you’ve written six books. What motivated you to step behind the cameras?
My first book Papa Was Not a Rolling Stone was very successful, everyone wanted to adapt it into a film. My friend Sylvie Verheyde said: “Do it yourself!” I’d never studied film, but she insisted: “Take hold of the camera and shoot the images you have in your head”. So I made that first movie and I ended up loving the filmmaking process, because it allows you to rewrite the story, to rewrite the world through images; it’s magical. It’s a bit like playing God, you decide what happens in people’s lives.

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(Translated from Italian)

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