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High Fashion Meets High Crimes in The New Look

The Apple TV+ show starring Juliet Binoche wrestles with Coco Chanel’s work for the Nazis.

Courtesy of Apple TV +
Juliette Binoche and Emily Mortimer are Coco Chanel and Elsa Lombardi in The New Look.

Midway through the new miniseries Masters of the Air, a young airman named Quinn bails out of his crashing bomber and lands somewhere in the countryside of Nazi-occupied Belgium. He’s able to take shelter in a farmhouse, where a small family hooks him up with the resistance. The few scenes in which we follow Quinn on his journey are among the most compelling in the series, in part because they give us a tantalizing glimpse of the high-stakes covert operations of the resistance itself. But after a handful of riveting scenes, including one long set piece on the train to Paris, Quinn’s adventure is over. I can’t be the only viewer who’d hoped we were about to split off and follow the resistance on its exploits. Tales of valiant, spectacular battle are chockablock in American media; tales of resistance are few.

Apparently, Apple TV+ felt the same way, and so, just a few months later, the resistance is back, in a somewhat unexpected context: The New Look, a sweeping biopic of couture designers Christian Dior and Coco Chanel in the 1940s. For most American viewers, likely most contemporary French viewers as well, Dior and Chanel are famous logos, famous silhouettes, famous scents. Their existence as public figures, the faces of their brands, is largely over. It may then come as some small surprise that their histories are inextricably tangled up with the same history that Masters of the Air parachutes into.

The New Look, created by TV veteran Todd Kessler, is a star-studded, visually sumptuous, morally pretzeled epic about the rise and fall of these great fashion houses during and after the war. And while Dior (Ben Mendelsohn) and Chanel (Juliette Binoche) are the show’s primary focus, it’s actually a relatively unknown character who provides the show’s gravity: Catherine Dior (Maisie Williams), the younger sister of the designer, who happened to be an active resistance fighter in Paris during the Nazi occupation. Following Christian and Coco, we bump into a shocking number of characters whose surnames we already recognize (Balmain and Balenciaga, Schellenberg and Himmler …), but following Catherine, we step into a world of secret messages, guerrilla attacks, and improvised assassinations, as we witness the bravery and mercilessness of France’s freedom fighters.

In ways both ingenious and stilted, the show attempts to intertwine this political drama with the high-fashion revolution of Dior’s own house. (The opening credits make this parallel brutally clear, intercutting sewing machines and machine-gun fire.) What sacrifices does freedom require? Which compromises are too dear to protect family? What’s the cost of collaboration? The New Look doesn’t so much answer these questions as let us feel their weight for 10 episodes. An opening title card before the first episode says, “This is the story of how creation helped return spirit and life to the world” after the end of the war. I mean it as a compliment when I say that The New Look does not ultimately manage to achieve the level of sentimental, celebratory fizz this card might suggest. This show maps a much harder road to inspiration, a more harrowing journey toward renewal. Its romance is a melancholy one, and the “creation” that first episode foretells has a hard time outweighing all the destruction that leads up to it. Vive la résistance, I guess.

The New Look opens toward the end of the Nazi occupation of Paris. At this moment, Coco Chanel is already an icon, the charismatic public face of high fashion. Her looks are everywhere, and her scent—Chanel No. 5—is a global sensation. She lives, unharassed, in the Paris Ritz, the social hub of the Nazi brass, largely, it’s implied, because the aesthetics-obsessed Nazis like having her around.

We meet her at the moment when her association with her German neighbors goes from casual to official, from ambient to active. Her beloved nephew is captured fighting for the French army, and Chanel takes on a debt of service to the Nazis—particularly SS spymaster Walter Schellenberg—in order to help him. By the end of that first episode, she’s freed her nephew, but she’s also literally and figuratively in bed with the Reich. Chanel’s love affair with her handler, a British German agent named Spatz (Claes Bang), provides a way into the show’s ambiguities and a spectacular showcase for Binoche’s talent. Her Coco is always acting on the precipice of shrewd improvisation and panicked flailing. Is Chanel collaborating out of love for her nephew or for Spatz? Is Spatz using her, or is it the other way around? How much is her compliance a performance, and how much does that matter?

Meanwhile, Christian Dior is designing ball gowns for the girlfriends of Nazis under the direction of his kindly boss, Lucien Lelong (John Malkovich). Dior insists on turning a blind eye to the men who pay his bills, but, at the same time, he allows his apartment to be a center of operations for his sister’s resistance activities and routes much of his salary to them as well. While Binoche’s Chanel projects comfort and ease in every setting, Mendelsohn’s Dior is never comfortable. He speaks in a barely audible baritone mumble, his hands are in a constant state somewhere between a fidget and a spasm, and even his posture makes him seem as if he’s always on the verge of tipping over. He is settled neither with his complicity in the Nazi occupation nor with his involvement in the resistance, especially inasmuch as he—rightly—expects that both have put his beloved sister in grave danger.

By the end of the first episode, Catherine is captured by the Nazis. The first several episodes linger to tell the story of the war’s end from the perspective of Dior, desperately trying to locate his sister and secure her release; Catherine being tortured and eventually transported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp north of Berlin; and Chanel, caught up in an escalating series of capers as a secret agent of the Reich, aiding a faction of the Nazi high command in their own desperate endeavor to negotiate an end to the war before the fast-approaching Allied forces end it for them. The remainder of the series takes place after the end of the war in Europe, as all our characters have to learn how to live with what they did, what they didn’t do, and what was done to them.

“The New Look” is the name that Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow gave to Dior’s debut collection—which replaced the liberated lines of the 20s and 30s with a padded, sculpted femininity—and so the arc of the show really belongs to him as well as to his sister. Her coming to terms with life after Ravensbrück is the most important parallel to Dior’s heroic acts of “creation.” Catherine’s story gives her brother’s art its meaning while forcing us to understand his art as, in some sense, meaningless.

But Chanel is the dramatic center of The New Look, which ultimately rises and falls with Juliette Binoche’s titanic performance. It would be easy to play her as either a monster or a victim of circumstance. But Binoche is cagey and versatile enough to let her almost always be both, especially in the scenes she shares with the equally extraordinary Emily Mortimer, who plays her longtime frenemy and adult collaborator Elsa Lombardi. There is a tenderness to Binoche’s Chanel that belies both her expansive charisma and deadly defensiveness—a character fragile enough that she might shatter, but sharp enough to cut if she does.

We see, in close-up, the slippages that allow her to survive but also allow her to justify her betrayals. She protests, but her protestations do not read as protestations to the Nazis. In fact, the high command is charmed rather than irked by Chanel’s brazen informality. Kessler and his writers are excellent at creating rooms—luxurious hotel suites, gaudy Nazi offices—in which the very air is controlled by the ­Reich, in which Chanel can talk herself into capitulations the Nazis barely even have to suggest, but in which Chanel can also always imagine herself two steps ahead, a traitor in service to the enemy, but also a woman who’s been wronged all her life, too strong and too cool to be morally liable.

So we see how Chanel collaborated, not as the work of a true believer, but as the arrogant negotiation of someone desperate to live and live well. But the show holds on to those crimes, just as it holds on to Catherine’s trauma and Dior’s guilt. They become heavier and heavier as the episodes go on. The war is never over.

For a show about the creative process, The New Look features relatively few detailed scenes of that creative process. Dior designs in fits of inspiration. We watch as he crumples up drafts and tears down old designs, but the moments when we actually watch him create play out as romantic fantasies of genius, a dress tailored to perfection in an overnight effusion, the famous “bar suit” that anchored his first collection flowing out of his pencil in a moment of grief, as if vouchsafed unto him by the gods. Dior made dresses for the Nazis, but he also, we are meant to understand, became the conduit through which French culture reemerged after the war. And, rather than saddle our picture of him with too many extended scenes of anguished design work—the labor of that genius—we are given a portrait of a tortured man channeling his pain into art, presto chango.

Chanel, on the other hand, makes nothing. We never see her so much as doodle a dress or hold a needle in the entire series. She wheels and deals and brands and steals the work of others, but never imagines and makes anything of her own. In this act of mythmaking, this genesis narrative of modern fashion, Chanel is a big personality, a looming name, an iconic style, but she’s not an artist, not a creator.

It’s a question why so didactic a series would go so far out of its way to find a female villain to anchor its story of artistic renewal after the violence of war. By and large, this is a show filled with elegant male ciphers who revolutionize haute couture in the shadow of a larger-than-life fallen woman. Chanel’s misdeeds are indisputable, but I did occasionally ask myself why Kessler chose this particular history to blazon in these particular tones. Especially since the House of Chanel did not fall. In fact, despite her commission of crimes worse than even the show represents, it’s unlikely you even think of the Nazis when you see those interlocking Cs on a bag or a belt.

While the show would like us, explicitly, to be filled with optimism by this story, it is a credit to Kessler and his writers that they do not fully succeed. As sanguine as this show can be about its celebration of art and creativity, it is a show that formally insists on every experience of that art being compromised. Whether it’s trauma or guilt or regret, no beautiful object can ever feel quite right. Art, fashion, can fill us with hope, it can make us cry, it can make us feel seen, but it doesn’t save our souls.