The New Look review: Christian Dior drama has jaw-dropping dresses, hammy accents and sublime acting

Apple TV+’s absorbing series unpicks the challenges of life as a fashion designer in Nazi-occupied France

Katie Rosseinsky
Wednesday 14 February 2024 06:08 GMT
The New Look Trailer

If you switch on Apple TV+’s The New Look without doing your due diligence, expecting beautiful gowns and a plot as light as tulle, you might be left confused.

Naturally, there are plenty of jaw-dropping dresses in this story of how Christian Dior became the biggest name in post-war Parisian fashion – the couture house opened up its archive to the programme makers, allowing the costume team to take inspiration from some of Dior’s oldest styles. But the plot itself is anything but frothy, unpicking the challenges of life as a designer in Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War.

Showrunner Todd A Kessler (who started his career as a staffer on The Sopranos and has since co-created shows such as Bloodline and Damages) tells a story that is much murkier than Dior’s sorbet colours. To do so, Kessler weaves together the designer’s wartime experiences with those of another legendary fashion figure, Coco Chanel. Both couturiers made compromises during the occupation, but that’s where the similarities end: their wars, Kessler’s show implies, were about as different as their design aesthetics (Chanel, the pioneer of a more androgynous style and possessor of a truly acid tongue, once claimed that Dior “doesn’t dress women, he upholsters them”).

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Ben Mendelsohn plays Dior as a quiet, dedicated man, wracked with guilt over the fact that his gowns are being worn by the wives and girlfriends of Nazi officers, most of whom are living it up in The Ritz while the French go hungry (during the war, Dior had yet to strike out on his own, and worked for the couturier Lucien Lelong, played here with the usual gravitas by John Malkovich). Much of the money he makes from dressing the enemy goes to supporting his younger sister Catherine (Maisie Williams, in her most interesting role since Game of Thrones). She is a Resistance agent who hosts clandestine meetings at her brother’s apartment on the Rue Royale, and Williams imbues her with a wilfulness that’s alternately sweet and steely.

Complex: Juliette Binoche’s performance gives life to Chanel’s contradictions (Apple TV+)

And then there’s Chanel. On screen, the legendary designer often has all her edges smoothed off to turn her into someone more generic and palatable (see the 2009 hagiography, Coco Before Chanel), but Juliette Binoche embraces all the contradictions of a fascinating woman who valued her own success and survival over all else. She’s vulnerable and devious, clever and utterly oblivious all at the same time. 

There are no attempts to sidestep her complicated history with the Nazis here: we see her fall for German officer Spatz (Claes Bang), her feelings certainly helped along by his convenient proximity to power (Binoche’s Chanel is the queen of expediency). Kessler also brings to life a little-known episode from 1943, when the Nazis sent the designer to Madrid to attempt to broker peace with Winston Churchill. Emily Mortimer is briefly scene-stealing as cocktail-swilling frenemy Elsa Lombardi, a British socialite married to an Italian fascist officer – and clearly based on the designer’s real muse, Vera Bate Lombardi – who accompanies Chanel on this ill-fated jaunt.

An English-language production telling a very French story, The New Look is inevitably full of slightly hammy accents, with the cast committing to varying levels. Once your ear has adapted, suspending your disbelief isn’t too difficult, but some of the dense dialogue does get a little lost under all the Franglais flourishes, which can be an issue when characters are unpacking a particularly crucial bit of back story. As Dior’s boss Lelong, Malkovich gets around this by speaking very slowly indeed. 

Accent quibbles aside, though, this series is a beautifully made, nuanced exploration of two creative geniuses whose lives were far from black and white. And it’s certainly proof that fashion isn’t frivolous: it’s deeply woven into some of history’s most significant moments.

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