Largely set in occupied France during World War II, the new Apple TV+ series The New Look zeroes in on Christian Dior’s rivalry with Coco Chanel — but it falls flat when it tries to handle Chanel’s infamous Nazi sympathies.

Still from The New Look. (Apple TV+)

The New Look, a ten-episode series currently running on Apple TV+, is such a dull muddle it’s bewildering, considering the lurid and dramatic potential of the material. The narrative is framed by the 1947 feud between two major fashion designers, Christian Dior and Coco Chanel, that’s rooted in their contrasting experiences surviving the Nazi occupation of France during WWII.

Fashion designer feud? Legendary era of haute couture? Nazi-occupied Paris? How can you make that boring?

Well, writer-director-producer Todd A. Kessler (The Sopranos) has done it. The actors seem trapped in gradually hardening cement, trying to bring the thing to life. Poor Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, who’s playing Dior, is fifty-four years old, older than Dior was when he died at age fifty-two in 1957, and he looks every day of it. Similarly aged-upward is the character of the prominent couturier Lucien Lelong, played by John Malkovich looking ancient and ravaged in pancake makeup. Lelong gets through the war by wrangling commissions from prominent Nazis for the designers who toil for him. Nazis are the only ones who can afford designer clothes in the conditions of widespread privation in occupied France.

Dior was in his thirties during the war, but Mendelsohn plods glumly through his role as a brilliant but oppressed fashion designer who is the sole support of a Resistance fighter, his beloved younger sister Catherine (Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones), who looks far more like his daughter here. Dior’s extravagant ball gown designs commissioned by the wives of Nazis create an income largely funneled into her and her comrades’ dangerous missions to undermine Nazi power. And his homosexuality makes him doubly vulnerable — the consequences for being identified as such might very well mean death in a concentration camp.

Meanwhile, Juliette Binoche struggles to fascinate as the spiky, innovative, egomaniacal Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, but the entire way the role is conceived is shockingly soft and sympathetic. It’s pretty common knowledge by now that Chanel was no reluctant collaborator with the Nazis. She was a right-wing nationalist, furiously anti-labor, and she made manifest her vicious, outspoken hatred of Jews, homosexuals, and communists. She admired Adolf Hitler. Hell, why doesn’t anybody just say she was a fascist? Even the book by Hans Vaughan, who did the research that exposed her work as a Nazi agent carrying out missions for the Gestapo, has the strangely soft title Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War. 

But she wasn’t just sleeping with the enemy, she was the enemy. Give the woman some credit for feminist autonomy here.

She was actively working in the Nazi spy ring run by the Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage (played by Claes Bang), whom she affectionately calls “Spatz” for “Sparrow.” She lived at the Hotel Ritz, which was headquarters for the Nazi brass in Paris. She only avoided being charged as a collaborator after the war because of the intercession of her pal Winston Churchill. She had many friends among the British aristocracy, a number of whom had also been Nazi-sympathizing antisemites and wanted that inconvenient fact forgotten.

It’s awkward, of course, because Chanel No. 5 perfume is still a top seller and the Chanel brand in general is ubiquitous. Coco Chanel revolutionized women’s clothes in World War I by introducing sportswear and casual wear. The wonderfully functional Chanel suit let women move freely while looking fab. She gave us the concept of the “the little black dress” that can be worn anywhere. Brilliant woman. But absolutely pro-Nazi.

This makes the soft-pedaling of her character in the series a real outrage. She’s introduced sympathetically pleading for the life of her nephew, who’s about to be shot by Nazis and only survives because of Spatz’s intervention. Then there’s her loss of control over her perfume company, which she claims occurred when her two partners, brothers Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, who were Jews, escaped to America and somehow cut her off from any funds owed to her. The series presents her collaboration with Nazis as an ugly descent into treachery that was forced upon her as a vulnerable woman trying to make it in a corrupt man’s world.

What’s left out is that she was trying to wrest control of the Societe de Parfums Chanel business away from the Wertheimers in 1941, using the Nazis anti-Jewish laws prohibiting Jews from owning businesses. They outmaneuvered her. Unless there are some big reveals to come in the series, Chanel’s avidly fascist attitudes underlying her collaboration are being glossed over.

Binoche does what she can to indicate Chanel’s steeliness underneath the worldly, changeable, and occasionally charming surface of her behavior. She brings a masklike implacability to the frame story of the series set in 1947, featuring an older, harder, more epigrammatic Chanel returning to Paris after her years in Switzerland. She’s there to reclaim her supremacy in international fashion from male designers she considers to be far less talented upstarts — Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain, Robert Piguet, Jacques Fath.

Dior’s famous 1947 “New Look,” celebrated in this series as representing a life-affirming embrace of beauty after the ugliness of war, was distinguished by its extravagant exaggeration of the female form. Signaling a return to opulence after the lean war years when shorter, straighter skirts revealing a lot of leg had as much to do with shortages of material as it did a celebration of more liberated and athletic women, Dior’s long skirts belled outward from tightly cinched waists and boasted lavish amounts of material. Of course, many designs were memorably gorgeous, sumptuous, and elaborately detailed dress-sculptures — his New Look creations. But they were also a return to a more traditional emphasis on the hourglass figure that became the visual representation of regressive 1950s conservatism in gender ideology.

Dior’s New Look directly opposed Chanel’s lovely yet practical body-liberating designs for women. And there’s the ideological crux of the problem. How to appreciate her often commendable designs for women and her impressive career while acknowledging her generally loathsome personal and political identity? Surely, it’s not that complex an intersection to negotiate, yet the series can’t seem to work it out. Here’s Binoche’s all-too-tolerant take on Chanel’s fervent support for the Nazis, which seems to reflect the overall attitude of the series:

I read lots of books to prepare for the role, and I had to go back to Chanel’s roots to try and understand why she behaved as she did during the war. . . . She came from the kind of poverty in which you’re born poor and die poor, and it was a time women didn’t get a future. I think her need to survive came from her need for success.

But I’m not saying she was a saint. . . . My job as an actor is to show the reality of her life during a dark and dehumanizing time in history.

I wonder if we’d see the same sympathy in American mainstream media for famous people who experienced poverty and became Stalinists?

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