Home » Ben Mendelsohn is Christian Dior in The New Look, a TV show about high fashion’s dark stains from WWII

Ben Mendelsohn is Christian Dior in The New Look, a TV show about high fashion’s dark stains from WWII

Ben Mendelsohn may be among Australia’s most respected actors, best known for his rough, villainous roles. A man of refined fashion he is not.

Yet, in Apple TV+ series The New Look, the Australian actor puts on his finest French accent and several gorgeous, tailored suits to embody designer Christian Dior — and tell the haunting story of haute couture’s ugly history during World War II.

Jumping back-and-forth from the Nazi-occupied Paris of the 1940s and the decade to follow, The New Look is a sharp examination of both Dior and fellow designer Coco Chanel’s (played by veteran French actor Juliette Binoche) ties to Nazism.

Both figures lived in Paris during the French Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis, deported more than 70,000 Jewish people to death camps between 1940 to 1944 and persecuted “undesirables” — including homosexuals, Romani, communists and members of the French resistance.

Chanel’s collaboration with Nazis has been a dark stain on the brand, ever since historian Hal Vaughan brought it to light with his 2011 book Sleeping with the Enemy.

Publicly, Coco shuttered her stores during Paris’s occupation. Privately, she moved into five-star hotel The Ritz, which was used as a Nazi headquarters, and had a “horizontal collaboration” with a German spy, before becoming one herself.

In a stranger-than-fiction moment, Chanel was given a mission to meet with Winston Churchill in the hopes of beginning peace negotiations between the allies and Third Reich — a doomed mission that is fascinating to watch.

But in the 1950s it was Dior who was tainted by association, while Chanel was able to side-step criticism by fleeing the country — not too quickly, though, for a photo opportunity handing out Chanel No. 5 during a street parade for allied soldiers.

Bringing to life a complex, rich moment in time, The New Look is fascinating — whether you’re a fashion history buff or can barely spell Balenciaga.

With a hint of melodrama, and an engrossing recreation of mid-century glamour and horrors in equal measure, it’s a smart, unfortunately timely examination of how people put their own comfort above other’s pain.

(Don’t let the show’s lacklustre title credits throw you off. The lifeless CGI stock footage of haute couture houses and a jump-scare shot of an atelier’s face that veers into the uncanny valley are simply a terrible representation of the show.)

Two titan performances

Created by Todd A. Kessler — a writer on The Sopranos who is also behind acclaimed shows Damages and Bloodline — the show’s script is meaty and filled with complex, nuanced roles.

This probably explains its overly stacked cast: Mendelsohn and Binoche are joined by John Malkovich, Glenn Close, Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones), Emily Mortimer and Claes Bang (The Square), among others.

Christian Dior’s designs were a return to an exaggerated feminimity and glamour, with tight cinched waists and large skirts.(Supplied: Apple TV+)

The New Look takes its title from what Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow (Close) labelled Dior’s first solo collection in 1947. Defined by opulence after years of scarcity, Dior’s dresses used yards of fabric, creating a heightened, dramatic feminine figure of cinched waists and structured shoulders.

In the show’s first scene, set in 1953, Dior is lavished with praise in a public lecture: “With your first collection, you helped humanity find beauty and the desire to live again after the horrors of World War II.”

Not everyone agreed: Feminist activists called Dior’s so-called New Look regressive for women. Chanel was far from a fan, once saying, “Only a man who never was intimate with a woman could design something that uncomfortable.”

While the series may be named after Dior, it splits its time evenly between the two titans — though they rarely cross physical paths.

We see Dior, not yet famous, continuing to work under Lucien Lelong (Malkovich) during the war.

Mendelsohn is excellent as a pre-fame Dior. Uncertainty in all but his designs emanates off his body, at a loss as his morals are compromised, his workplace continuing to make dresses for Nazi customers while other designers like Cristóbal Balenciaga and Chanel make a point of closing shop.

A concerned man sits at a table in a suit with a pen in hand, papers with fashion designs sprawled out in front of him.

Ben Mendelsohn knew little of Christian Dior’s life when he agreed to play him, at first motivated at the chance to team up with Bloodline director Todd A. Kessler.(Supplied: Apple TV+)

But Binoche dominates The New Look, if only because Chanel is such an overwhelming character.

Speaking to Vanity Fair, Kessler describes Chanel as a survivor, an orphan who began her career at a time when it was illegal for women to have bank accounts.

Binoche’s steeliness captures this, though her Chanel is no cold caricature; flickers of fear and horror poke through when SS members speak of the violence that she can otherwise ignore in her glamorous surroundings. Her cognitive dissonance is a reprehensible resilience, believing that survival requires luxury.

Meanwhile, Dior lands on the path of least resistance, continuing to work despite his conscience, offsetting it somewhat by using his pay to support his sister Catherine (Maisie Williams), a resistance fighter.

But his disgust at himself simmers quietly. “All I ever wanted to do is design the most beautiful woman’s clothing that ever existed,” he tells the lecture room, later adding, “for me, creation was survival.”

Chanel on the arm of a tuxedoed von Dincklage, in a beautiful black dress.

Coco Chanel’s affair with German spy Hans Günther von Dincklage came to light with explosive 2011 book Sleeping with The Enemy.  (Supplied: Apple TV+)

This is evident in The New Look — Dior lightens up when he designs, matched only with moments with his male lovers. Mendelsohn transforms in these brief scenes: free.

Even for those who see fashion as frivolous, Mendelsohn makes evident the light it can offer in a dark world.

The New Look questions the depth of beauty, too. With help from Dior (Chanel was not involved in the show), the show offers plenty of period drama glamour through costume and locale.

It’s most luxurious settings are Nazi owned — from Chanel’s royal-fit room in The Ritz to the Gestapo’s torture house in Paris, its gorgeous sun-lit rooms at odds with its atrocities.

The visual spectacle draws us in as much as it does for Dior or Chanel, adding an uneasy air of complicity.

The New Look is streaming on Apple TV+.