‘The New Look’ Review: A Dreary Docudrama Sapped of Both Style and Substance

Liem Soeng

‘The New Look’ Review: A Dreary Docudrama Sapped of Both Style and Substance
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At the top of Episode 1 of Apple’s “The New Look,” a title card flashes some weighty words: “This is the story of how creation helped return spirit and life to the world.”

But Todd A. Kessler’s drama series is barely that. “The New Look” is largely insular, despite taking place during a turbulent era that still affects millions around the world, centering figures who certainly left their marks on culture and history — but the vague thesis statement sounds like just that; the kind of sweeping, half-formed idea that a high school student might retroactively tack on to the introduction of an essay.

“The New Look” is the concurrently told story of two fashion icons forged in the traumatic depths of World War II — concurrent, but not parallel — Christian Dior (Ben Mendelsohn) and Coco Chanel (Juliette Binoche). The series begins in 1955, when Chanel returned to Paris after years spent in Switzerland to reclaim the throne of haute-couture from the alleged usurper Dior. After that, the series flashes back to 1943, during the Nazi occupation of Paris, and moves through the pivotal years that followed.

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Creatively, the decision to kick “The New Look” off in 1955 and then rapidly rewind ultimately hampers the series. There is not enough linking Chanel and Dior in that timeline to invoke intrigue for their interpersonal history, which ends up being all but nonexistent. All the cold open does is tenuously tie these icons together, only to then launch into their disparate backstories and not return to 1955 until the finale. Perhaps the intent was to lay out the life of a designer who rose to fame during and after the war as juxtaposed with one who was already acclaimed and wealthy — so much so that she colluded with Nazis, while Dior’s sister joined the French resistance and was held hostage for years.

A woman in a beige cardigan and matching hat, wearing a pearl necklace; Juliette Binoche as Coco Chanel in
“The New Look”Apple

Mendelsohn and Binoche do what they can with what they’ve got; heavy-handed dialogue and dissonant narratives set in a lifeless production palette. The cast is rounded out by Maisie Williams as Christian’s sister Catherine (the actors are almost 30 years apart in age), Emily Mortimer as Chanel’s childhood friend Elsa Lombardi, David Kammenos as Dior’s partner Jacques, Glenn Close as Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow — and then a handful of guest stars as other big-name designers: John Malkovich as Lucien Lelong, Thomas Poitevin as Pierre Balmain, Nuno Lopes as Cristóbal Balenciaga, Eliott Margueron as Pierre Cardin.

And while “The New Look” isn’t badly made or acted, it is just generally unremarkable. It’s too long at 10 episodes, and a challenge to embark on especially once it jumps back to 1943 and promises to cover the horrors of the time. For a show marketing itself as some sort of cross-section between “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Phantom Thread,” and “Feud,” fashion and animosity are mostly relegated to the sidelines. This is not the juicy origin story of two ubiquitous designers, but a pointed revisitation of how WWII affected or was affected by them — and without much gusto in depicting any of it. The show’s wobbly North Star appears to be that creation and consumerism are lights in the darkness of war. It’s a fine idea to be sure, but would work better if it afforded more acknowledgement to loyalty, conviction, and resistance — without which any kind of artistry appears as superficial as a ball gown.

Grade: C+

The first three episodes of “The New Look” are now streaming on Apple TV+, with new episodes weekly.


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