‘The New Look’ series review: As beautiful as it is meandering and morose

It’s an incongruous thought—to pair the glamour of haute couture with the grisly throes of war. Yet it’s within this stark contrast that Apple TV+’s lavish new series “The New Look,” which draws upon true historical events, delves into the harrowing realities faced by French fashion designers who courted controversy and complicity amidst the Nazi occupation of Paris during the Second World War.

Set against a backdrop of scarcity and strife, “The New Look” commences with the enigmatic Coco Chanel (played by Juliette Binoche) re-entering the fashion world after an eight-year hiatus, while the esteemed Christian Dior (portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn) receives a tribute through a retrospective at Sorbonne University. The year is 1955 and the grandeur of Paris belies a history of hardship and moral ambiguity, as a question posed by a student prompts Dior to reflect on his wartime decisions—his choice to design for the wives and mistresses of Nazi officers as opposed to shutting down operations like Chanel did at the war’s dawn in 1939.

Transporting viewers to 1943 Paris, the show offers a city rife with bread lines and ration cards, where Dior toils away at the couture house of Lucien Lelong (John Malkovich). As the narrative threads between the lives of the designers, we meet various luminaries of the era including Cristóbal Balenciaga (Nuno Lopes) and Pierre Balmain (Thomas Poitevin), while Dior’s younger sister, Catherine (Maisie Williams), faces the dire consequences of her resistance work as she’s captured and deported to a concentration camp by the Gestapo.

Meanwhile, Chanel, residing at the opulent Ritz alongside high-profile Nazi officials, descends into desperate stratagems to secure her nephew Andre’s (Joseph Olivennes) release from German capture. Ignoring warnings from the Baron (Christopher Buchholz) about the dark price of Nazi favors, Chanel employs the loathsome “Aryan law” to reclaim her fashion business from her erstwhile partners, the Wertheimers.

Yet her maneuverings don’t stop there. The Nazis soon seek to exploit Chanel’s British aristocracy connections, intending to entreat British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Through the smooth and duplicitous aristocrat Hans von Dincklage (Claes Bang), Chanel is entangled with Walter Schellenberg (Jannis Niewöhner), head of foreign intelligence, launching an elaborate plot involving her English rival, Elsa Lombardi (Emily Mortimer), to arrange a pivotal meeting with Churchill.

Throughout the episodic journey of “The New Look,” we observe the concurrent storylines that chart Chanel’s disgrace and Dior’s ascension. As France is liberated, Chanel stands accused of collaboration, fleeing to Switzerland yet continuing her legal tussles with the Wertheimers. The narrative eventually dovetails into the show’s opening, with Dior’s artistic desire to “create the most beautiful women’s clothing that ever existed,” manifest in the iconic Miss Dior perfume dedicated to Catherine and the seminal collection that birthed his own couture house, later dubbed the New Look by Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Carmel Snow (Glenn Close).

The series, for all its historical leanings, is undeniably enchanting for its depiction of sartorial splendor and its powerhouse performances. Mendelsohn embodies a deeply expressive Dior, his emotional breadth conveyed with the subtlest of gestures. Binoche, ever the consummate performer, captures Chanel’s fiery, restless spirit with aplomb. With sumptuous clothing and meticulous period details, the show’s aesthetic is a feast for the eyes, often resembling the static beauty of classic artworks.

However, this very beauty also bestows a sense of detachment upon the series. The ambition to encompass numerous story arcs leads to a somewhat superficial exploration of each. Furthermore, a persistence of questionable French accents and historical inaccuracies (such as anachronistically referring to Churchill as ‘Sir’ before his knighthood in 1953), lends the series a fantasy quality, where adherence to history plays second fiddle to the allure of fashion’s golden age.

While it may not stand as a reliable source for historical precision, “The New Look” offers an indulgence in fashion’s glamorous veneer and the complicated figures that shaped its legacy. The series is an ongoing affair on Apple TV+, releasing episodes weekly until its last on April 3, 2024, ready to captivate audiences with a tale of beauty forged in darkness.

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