'The New Look' — Dior vs Chanel miniseries' wardrobe malfunction

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday February 20, 2024
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Ben Mendelsohn and John Malkovich in 'The New Look' (photo: Apple+ TV)
Ben Mendelsohn and John Malkovich in 'The New Look' (photo: Apple+ TV)

"All I ever wanted was to design the most beautiful women's clothing that ever existed," proclaims French fashion genius Christian Dior in the new 10-episode limited series, "The New Look," now streaming on Apple+ TV.

The series chronicles how Paris reclaimed its title as the capital of haute couture, launching modern fashion, after the disastrous World War II Nazi occupation. This metamorphosis is depicted through the eyes of history's two greatest designers, the promising up-and-coming young upstart Dior rivaling the world's most famous clothes/perfume icon, Coco Chanel, whose fortunes declined after the war ended.

Christian Dior couture recreated for 'The New Look' (photo: Apple+ TV)  

The goal was to create beauty out of post-war gloom and horror (i.e. the French Vichy government's deportation of 76,000 Jews to concentration camps) with Dior exclaiming, "For those of us who lived through the chaos of war, creation was survival. People need to feel, dream. We can create a new world for them. It is our way forward."

If only the series could have matched the excitement and vision Dior expressed.

Vive la revolution
The series opens in 1955, when Chanel (Juliette Binoche) returned to Paris to reopen her atelier house, launching her first collection after a seven-year Swiss exile. She speaks to journalists, haughtily declaring, "Christian Dior ruined French couture and I'm coming back to save it."

Juliette Binoche and Claes Bang in 'The New Look' (photo: Apple+ TV)  

Simultaneously, Dior (Ben Mendelsohn) is being honored at the Sorbonne, the first fashion designer to receive such an accolade. A student in the audience asks him, "Was it true you designed dresses for the Nazi wives and girlfriends while Chanel closed shop during the war?"

Dior responds, "Yes. I was a nobody, working for Lucien Lelong (John Malkovich, in his usual halting delivery with a miserable French accent). For those who lived through the darkest four years of our lives, we did sell our designs to the Nazis to survive. There is the truth, but there's always another truth that lives behind it."

Suddenly, in a flashback, it's 1943. Besides creating much prized ball gowns, Dior provides a safe house for his beloved younger sister Catherine (Maisie Williams) and friends, fearless members of the French Resistance. She's captured, sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, and brutally tortured for the duration of the war.

Meanwhile, Chanel, after closing her shop, lives at the Nazi-controlled Ritz Hotel. Using her Nazi connections, she obtains her nephew's release from a POW camp. She's invited to steal beautiful items from wealthy Jewish family's apartments seized by the Nazis.

She has an affair with a German aristocrat/spy, code name Spatz (Claes Bang, the perfect villain). He introduces her to Heinrich Himmler, who wants to do business with Chanel. She attempts to use Vichy's Aryan laws to eliminate her Jewish business partners so she can claim sole ownership of her company.

Maisie Williams in 'The New Look' (photo: Apple+ TV)  

At S.S. General Schellenberg's request, she travels to Madrid in a bizarre plan to forge peace between Germany and Britain behind Hitler's back. She tries to meet with Winston Churchill, whom she knows personally, but fails, when he doesn't arrive.

Rise from the ashes
The series follows three strands. Primarily, Dior's rise to fame as he stars in Lelong's exhibition of hope, after Paris's liberation, a fashion show of over 200 dolls dressed in designer outfits, because there was insufficient fabric available for female models.

Dior separates from Lelong and founds his own fashion house on Avenue Montaigne. This leads to his famous postwar show, which became known as "The New Look," epitomized by his iconic Bar Suit, a tribute to Dior's mother's garden. It was named by Camilla Snow (Glenn Close, marvelous), Harper's Bazaar editor-in-chief, the Anna Wintour of her era. Looking for fashion's new leader, she heralds a great collection "to rise from the ashes of war."

Secondly, we witness Chanel's attempts to exonerate or rather excuse herself from her wartime collaboration with the Nazis, and fights to regain sole control over her company in a nasty fight with her Jewish partners.

Finally, we trace what happens to Catherine after her release from Ravensbruck. She later will inspire Dior's new perfume, named Miss Dior, in her honor.

Christian Dior couture recreated for 'The New Look' (photo: Apple+ TV)  

Couture collaborator
Half the series is a World War II thriller in which fashion takes a secondary seat. It's the more successful segment of the series. The second half is thwarted by the series' schizoid nature. Dior comes across as a timid, conflicted, creatively blocked figure unwilling to make the hard decisions to become the premier designer he longs to be.

However, the more serious shortcoming is how writer/director Todd Kessler channels Chanel. She's rightfully portrayed as a traitorous collaborator, but we're supposed to sympathize with her, because she's a survivor clawing to the top, who overcame devastating childhood poverty in an orphanage and overt male sexism. The dilemma is that she's totally ruthless, willing to throw anyone under the train to maintain her position. Kessler seems determined almost to revise and minimize her Nazi past, despite contrary extensive evidence.

Juliette Binoche (one of the world's great actresses, incapable of giving a bad performance) tries to find her humanity in this thoroughly unlikable character, but it's almost distasteful and in later episodes tiresome to watch Chanel lie and cheat repeatedly to get what she wants. Binoche adds some zesty, snappish wit to the dialogue, but due to Chanel's egomania, we can't empathize with her motivations or her "rehabilitation."

Pas d'assez gay
Then there's the gay connection which is minimized. Dior has a long-term partner Jacques (David Kammenos) who is at his side, mostly as a lackey, either following Dior's orders or acting as his go-between. Dior is very discreet, only acknowledging Jacques to in-the-know friends. We see nothing about how the couple met or what it was like to be a gay couple under Nazi rule.

Thomas Poitevin, Ben Mendelsohn, David Kammenos and John Malkovich in 'The New Look' (photo: Apple+ TV)  

Also, during this period, Dior has contact with other later celebrated designers such as Pierre Cardin (who works for a few years under Dior), Balmain, and Balenciaga, all of whom were gay, yet you'd never glean that understanding from the series.

This closeted feel is complicated by Ben Mendelsohn, who doesn't seem the least bit gay. He's miscast, primarily because at age 54 he looks too old as the fresh face of a new generation. During the wartime period, he's 20 years past Dior's actual age. Mendelsohn is older now than when Dior died in 1957 due to a heart attack at age 52. He's simply the wrong fit here as Dior. Only Maisie Williams as the courageous and heartbreaking Catherine scores an acting triumph.

For a series supposedly focusing on fashion design, we learn little about its artistry, why the New Look was so revolutionary, transforming Dior into a couture rock star, or how Dior originated his dresses.

As one might expect, the costumes are glorious, as is the recreation of the actual New Look fashion show, with the current house of Dior formulating many of the gowns. Unsurprisingly, today's Chanel house declined to participate. The production design is engrossing as we experience what it was like to live in Paris during the Nazi occupation.

For those enthralled with fashion, there's enough entertaining glitz and melodrama to keep one returning week after week. But for people less enamored by haute couture, the whole enterprise might seem sluggish with few rewards. Although the beauty and intrigue can intermittently be captivating, Dior deserves better.


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