You are currently viewing Not So Ready to Wear: “The New Look” reviewed

Not So Ready to Wear: “The New Look” reviewed

The trailer for Apple TV+’s The New Look is exhilarating. Flashbulbs pop. Models in exquisite gowns twirl. Janelle Monáe’s swaggering “Haute” blares. Ben Mendelsohn and Juliette Binoche, as Christian Dior and Coco Chanel, cast smoldering gazes at the camera. “Parisian couture could influence how thousands of ordinary women dream and live,” proclaims Glenn Close, in character as the influential Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow.

What a shame it is that the 10-episode series bears so little resemblance to the ads promoting it. Nor does it quite deliver on the prefatory text that sets up the premiere: “This is the story of how creation helped return spirit and life to the world.” Framed as an account of Dior’s meteoric rise in the aftermath of World War II, The New Look is, in practice, a dull, morose, bafflingly executed trudge through Nazi-occupied France, as navigated by two of the most famous names in the history of fashion. The pace is sluggish and the characters thin. A-list actors and directors are wasted. Big questions about art and politics are left not only unanswered, but also largely unasked. If the show can be said to capture any spirit at all, it is one of generic wartime gloom.

The series opens in 1955. While Coco is firing off feisty quips to the press in advance of her first collection since Germany invaded France, Christian, the reigning king of Parisian couture, is addressing an audience of starstruck fashion students at the Sorbonne. But all anyone seems to want to talk about is his rival’s return. One young woman takes the microphone and asks: “Is it true that during the German occupation of Paris, Coco Chanel closed her atelier and refused to design dresses for the wives of Nazis, while you kept designing and making money?” The moderator tries to shut down the question, whose answer is technically yes, but Christian insists on replying. “There is the truth,” he says. “But there is always another truth that lives behind it.”

As anyone who knows much about Chanel or Dior must be aware, this is quite the understatement. Cue the flashback to 1943, which seems at first like it will be brief but is, in fact, the true beginning of a timeline that moves painfully slowly from that third year of the occupation through the debut of the House of Dior’s first collection in 1947. When we meet Christian, he is working for the powerful couturier Lucien Lelong (an underutilized John Malkovich), who has been intimidated into supplying frocks to the wives and girlfriends of Nazis. As unhappy as Christian is about serving this clientele, he has a family to support. His younger sister Catherine (Maisie Williams) is taking on dangerous missions for the Resistance. So it’s only a matter of time before she’s apprehended by the Nazis, tortured, and shipped off to a brutal work camp.

Elsewhere in Paris, at a Ritz draped in swastikas, Coco—already the doyenne of French fashion—is apoplectic because her Jewish business partners, the Wertheimers, have fled to America and left her unable to access proceeds from her blockbuster fragrance Chanel No. 5. She’s also in debt to a suave Nazi named Hans Günther von Dincklage, a.k.a. Spatz (Claes Bang), who helped free her beloved nephew André Palasse (Joseph Olivennes) from a POW camp. Although she makes all the right noises, at first, about her aversion to fraternizing with Nazis, Coco is easily swayed to undertake a crucial assignment on their behalf in exchange for the Reich’s offer to invoke the Aryan laws to seize the Wertheimers’ Chanel holdings.

While Coco spends most of the overlong season running errands for the Reich, then scrambling to salvage her reputation in Paris from Switzerland, Christian can concentrate on nothing but his increasingly perilous quest to save Catherine—whose familiarly horrific ordeal at the hands of the Nazis viewers are made to observe at length. His story, as a result, plods mopily. The idea is that he’s wading through the kind of heartache that afflicted so many in Europe, towards the salvation of finding the will to design again. (Some character is constantly saying some version of “creation is our way forward.”) For the most part, though, we watch him wallow in setbacks of various sizes, before suddenly triumphing in the finale. Whole episodes revolve around his distaste for the mausoleum-like building where his backer wants to headquarter the House and his dilemma over whether to hire away seamstresses from his more established colleagues.

“New Look” was Snow’s term for Dior’s breakthrough, and Christian—who is by far the more sympathetic lead—is clearly supposed to be the show’s protagonist. But Coco gets the more exciting story line, from wild parties to high-stakes espionage, Nazi dalliances to incandescent tantrums. Together with Binoche’s herculean efforts to give her character complexity, that tilts the balance of attention in her direction. Yet all that screen time yields little insight. Was it just selfishness that made her collaborate with the Nazis, or was she sympathetic to their genocidal antisemitism? Creator Todd A. Kessler (Bloodline, Damages) doesn’t really care to investigate. Instead, Coco’s unconscionable behavior is chalked up to her childhood in an orphanage and some vague notions about feminism. “Have you ever thought about what a woman has to face in order to survive in this world?” she demands of a Jew who fled the Holocaust.

Such superficiality is typical of this weirdly incurious series. The New Look keeps gesturing towards potentially fascinating aspects of the characters’ lives without ever delving into them. Dior’s partner Jacques (David Kammenos) is often present, but Kessler barely examines the relationship between gay men living under Nazi rule, decades before the queer liberation movement. Jacques serves to move the plot along, delivering news to Christian and thereby the viewer. A community of young designers that includes the men behind some of today’s most coveted labels—Balenciaga, Balmain—mainly functions as Christian’s sounding board.

Strangest of all, Kessler seems fundamentally uninterested in the art of fashion design. It’s tough to understand what was so revolutionary about the New Look without knowing what preceded it, or what the ethos behind it was, or why it caught on. Aside from brief fashion shows in the first and last 15 minutes of the series, we barely see, much less hear anyone talk about, Dior’s creations. The iconic Bar suit appears a few times, but you’ll learn more about its significance from one paragraph on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website than you do from the show. No one expects this to be an educational program. It’s just hard to say much about the role of an art form during and after a devastating war when you can’t do justice to the very basics of said art form. In that regard as well, The New Look is content to skim the surface.

Beneath that veneer, the show’s construction is shoddy. Episodes feel pasted together with onscreen text that supplies exposition and, like a 1940s-set Bravo docusoap, identifies minor characters.

Shapeless story arcs give such distinguished directors as Titane Palme d’Or winner Julia Doucournau and Jeremy Podeswa (Station Eleven, Game of Thrones) little to work with. Mendelsohn, Binoche, Williams, Malkovich, Close, Bang, and Emily Mortimer (as Coco’s frenemy Elsa Lombardi) are as strong a cast as you could want, but they don’t always make sense together. Mendelsohn, at 54, is over a decade older than Dior would’ve been in 1947; he and Binoche, 59, whose character is a generation his senior, appear to be roughly the same age. This is a particular problem because Christian is supposed to represent a breath of fresh air for an industry stagnating under Coco. Williams is nearly three decades younger than Mendelsohn and reads as a daughter more than a sibling. It makes suspending disbelief hard.

Fashion, at its best, sells an irresistible fantasy. Like a cleverly edited trailer, it makes you want to see more, know more, spend more time in its enchanting presence. The product is pleasure. The illusion is of perfection. But The New Look, a tedious slog, shows every crooked seam.