‘The New Look’ Review: Ben Mendelsohn and Juliette Binoche Blend History and Haute Couture in Apple TV+ Drama

French designers Christian Dior and Coco Chanel come out fighting in the waning days of WWII in a series that’s a cut above the competition

Ben Mendelsohn as Christian Dior in "The New Look" (Apple TV+)

Largely set in the hothouse Parisian world of haute couture, “The New Look” views the waning days of WWII and the Nazi Occupation, and their aftermath, with fresh eyes. The stunning period drama portrays struggle, defeat and triumph among names that still have cachet — Christian Dior and Coco Chanel chief among them.

On one side, we see the high costs and moral high-ground of the French resistance, and on the other, a collaboration with the Germans in a world where survival is everything and beauty is fleeting and ephemeral. The series itself, created by “Damages’” Todd A. Kessler, is biographical fiction at its finest, a heartbreaking story of triumph and loss amid breathtaking beauty and institutional cruelty.

This is the year of Juliette Binoche, who plays Chanel. Concurrently, the French Oscar winner is transcendent on the big screen. Her intimate portrait of a cook in the kitchen of a great French chef gave us “A Taste of Things,” an award-winning French culinary movie bound to take its place with classics “Babette’s Feast” and “Big Night.” Here, over ten expansive episodes, she inhabits famed fashion influencer and designer Chanel, a flawed woman with exquisite taste and talents hungry for life.

Chanel, a former orphan living at The Ritz now occupied by German elite circa 1945, tries to maintain her standard of living — fresh flowers everywhere — and the perfume business she runs with Jewish backers, although she closes her atelier and the Brothers Wertheimer flee to America. She has a date with destiny, which she tries to finesse with all the cunning of a successful Parisian businesswoman, but that is far beyond her control or powers of manipulation.

This performance is a lifetime in the making. Binoche is elegant, subtle, ever-present, incandescent and unsentimental. Her slim, ageless Coco is a walking advertisement for the Chanel look, with her semi-masculine palazzo pants, vests and ties, her ropes of pearls and gold chains, and bejeweled fingers encrusted with rings that are each a small wonder.

Ballsy and vulnerable, Chanel relies chiefly on herself, throwing all impediments under the bus along the way. With her lover Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage (tall, seductive Danish actor Claes Bang), and the entanglements in which the German Abwehr spy involves her, it’s hard not to find a trail tying her back to the Nazis. Her unlikeable yet beguiling character fails to see the larger picture. As the Nazis recede, and Allies flood Paris, women who collaborated (like the famed actress Arletty who had a German Officer lover) have their heads shaved and are subjected to public humiliation.

Juliette Binoche and Claes Bang in “The New Look.” (Apple TV+)

After the war, Chanel flees to Switzerland but she can never entirely squelch the rumors of her ties to the Nazis. The force of history – and the facts of her behavior — is against her. Judgmental post-war Europe is not a place for Parisian moral equivalencies.

Carrying equal weight in a story that shifts largely between the two is Ben Mendelsohn’s Christian Dior. The homosexual designer has not yet established his brand to the degree Chanel has, although he is part of a circle of rising fashionistas that includes Pierre Cardin, Pierre Balmain and Cristobal Balenciaga. The wily John Malkovich delivers, as he always does, as couturier and Dior’s longtime backer Lucien Lelong.

Mendelsohn carries his grief in the deep pockets of his hang-dog face. Living under Nazi occupation as part of a circle of gay creatives, pulled between an artistic temperament and his country father’s judgment would be enough to traumatize anybody.

Add to this the fate of Dior’s beloved sister Catherine. As the younger Dior, Maisie Williams loses herself in a challenging role that erases memories of her “Game of Thrones” Arya Stark. Catherine joins a French resistance cell only to be arrested, tortured and shipped to a German work camp.

Maisie Williams as Catherine Dior in “The New Look” (Apple TV+)

As Dior dresses Nazi women in divine ball gowns, he’s intent on finding and rescuing his sister, whatever the cost. He’s a man torn between his desire to create beauty, engage in a same-sex relationship deemed illegal and a deep need to rescue his sister as if she were his soul itself. She may be.

Also equal parts hilarious and cringeworthy is Emily Mortimer as Chanel’s oldest, closest friend and partner in crime, the addiction-prone Elsa Lombardy. “Damages” star Glenn Close has a tart yet critical supporting role as American arbiter of taste, “Harper’s Bazaar” editor Carmel Snow.

Befitting a painstaking series about the birth of the post-war couturiers, the costumes are exquisite. The production design spans lavish suites at the Ritz to the colorless hellholes of a Nazi camp, presenting the opposites with the same attention to detail. The music is also stunning, with songs from the era interwoven with modern covers that play out each episode, bridging past and present: Lana Del Rey’s soulful “Blue Skies,” Nick Cave’s “La Vie en Rose” and Sam Dew’s “I Cover the Waterfront.”

Weaving sophisticated fashion and one of the most brutal passages in 20th Century Europe, “The New Look” stares down the past in all its beauty and betrayal. The passionate period saga spurns contemporary cancel culture to get under the perfumed skin of two elite pioneers whose paths diverged and, yet, both ultimately remained fashion bold-faced names long after their deaths.

“The New Look” premieres Wednesday, Feb. 14, on Apple TV+.


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