The New Look – Review: “Style over Substance, but so much Style”


The New Look wrapped up its run earlier this year with a ten episode, functionally a miniseries but with the potential to return, biopic of the transition of the fashion industry out of world war two and into the monopolies that it became today. Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, Pierre Balmain and Cristóbal Balenciaga were all actively involved in the horrors of the Second World War and the show delights in exploring their involvement with them with a key focus on Dior and Chanel, opening with a flashforward that positions Dior’s status as a rival to Chanel who announces her return to the fashion scene. He’s played by Ben Mendelsohn, whilst Chanel is played by Juliette Binoche – one of the greatest actors of her generation. The show is another example of throwing money at excellent, high-quality talent – with creator Todd A. Kessler having experience with Bloodline and The Sopranos in the past – and making sure that The New Look absolutely sticks the landing. And flaws and all – it arrives in a very messy fashion, it does – spending much of the first half of the series in the trenches in the Second World War.

One of the most notorious hidden secrets about Coco Chanel was that she worked for the Nazis and The New Look doesn’t shy away from that, exploring what it was like to be a woman of influence under the Nazi Regime. Chanel is given the performance of a lifetime by Juliette Binoche, who really owns her character as she makes the consequences that come back to haunt her by the end; you’re watching these characters get what they want and survive, but at what cost comes that? This is juxtaposed opposite Dior’s perfectly heartbreaking narrative and his relationship with younger sister Catherine Dior, who is taken captive by the Nazis early on, and both Mendelsohn and Maisie Williams do a fantastic job at navigating such a difficult subject to cover. Make no mistake, The New Look is heavy. The survivors’ pain is personal, anguish and tormented. Furthermore, episodes directed by Helen Shaver examine the brutal costs exacted on Nazi collaborators – including those rumoured to have relationships with Nazis, and the sheer toll of the war on Paris is very much front and centre – a powerful scene in a club venue has echoes of Casablanca where Dior is guilted into sharing his grief.

A heartbreaking scene of Dior waiting for his sister to return from the POW camp is directed by Titane filmmaker Julia Ducournau – the sequences of the families separated by the Nazis being reunited with those who have gone through unspeakable horrors, survivors of camps like Auschwitz, are given the respect and care that a subject of this material commands. If you were expecting an easy watch The New Look is not it – it’s heavy, hard hitting, and spends much time examining what state these characters were in that led to them creating their masterpieces of modern fashion often if not moreso than creating their masterpieces of modern fashion itself, with the back half of Series One almost feeling like a second series given its progression; but the scars of the war are very much present throughout.

The rivalry between Dior and Coco Chanel is front and centre in a flawed, but powerful way. “Christian Dior ruined French couture and I’m coming back to save it”, Chanel claims in 1955. It’s bold yet lacks the many intricacies of the Dior/Chanel rivalry as both are rarely on screen together, if at all, but the talent of both actors – Mendelsohn and Binoche, really give The New Look justice. It’s such a drastic escalation of events for Chanel to find herself involved in the Nazis that it’s almost hard to believe it was true; yet it was – and The New Look doesn’t have a fair shot at redeeming her, because after all, anyone who worked for the Nazis, worked for the Nazis – here Chanel is “Agent Westminster” to bring Churchill to the negotiation table. Her involvement with them instantly makes her for a controversial figure that the show delights in exploring; as she loses, and then regains her company, navigating a world where she couldn’t even have her own bank account.

The depth is present but the show never really is able to elevate it into having any of an oomph and it can often be a tad messy. It’s a fresh change from Masters of the Air and distinctive enough to see why Apple wanted to air them both within the same time as each other; and instead the focus of individuals as opposed to the war effort makes for a marked shift of how war stories are often told. Survival of the individual vs. survival of the people first. It is all surface level; however. I rarely learnt anything more than what I didn’t know already – although I had an unfair advantage as a history student, and I feel like The New Look might have almost been better suited to a Ridley Scott-style biopic; as opposed to a stretched out 10 episode high fashionista drama. The groundworks are in place for a healthy element of prestige which this show delivers on; showing echoes of Phantom Thread at the best of times – but it’s never quite perfect, never quite there.

Yet as a study of grief, it works wonders – moreso when focused on Dior than Chanel; and Mendelsohn does his best to make a blank slate interesting; and it proves that terror and cruelty can affect the extraordinary people among as much as the rest of us.

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