Ben Mendelsohn as Dior in The New Look

The stench of Chanel No 5

Set mainly in Nazi-occupied Paris, The New Look tells the story of Coco Chanel and Christian Dior

On Television

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I’ve just finished writing The Last Days of Budapest, an account of the Hungarian capital during the Second World War. Like every author nowadays I dream that my book will be turned into a television series. Until now, received wisdom was that the high production costs of period dramas deter producers.

But that is changing: Masters of the Air, about American bombers during the war, had a budget of $250 million. Todd Kessler’s The New Look, also on Apple TV+, doubtless cost less but the vivid period details are even more finely observed.

Set mainly in Nazi-occupied Paris, the series tells the story of Coco Chanel and Christian Dior. The title takes its name from Dior’s post-war collection. The wartime new look revolved around the sharp lines of Nazi uniforms — some supplied by Hugo Boss — and jackboots.

Much of The New Look is grounded in reality. Chanel, marvellously played by Juliette Binoche, was close to the British ruling elite, some of whom were sympathetic to Hitler. During the war she happily lived in the Hotel Ritz alongside senior Nazis.

Chanel’s utterly ruthless determination to save herself, sacrifice anyone necessary along the way and later reinvent herself as a member of the resistance makes grimly fascinating viewing.

Dior, somewhat drippily played by Ben Mendelsohn, is a more nuanced character. He supported the resistance but also worked for the Germans. Dior tried valiantly to rescue his sister Catherine after she was sent to Ravensbrück. The violence, terror and degradation of the scenes inside the concentration camp could not be a sharper contrast to the lush salons of fashionable Paris.

The series has little about the deportation of French Jews to Auschwitz, but the grim reality of life under Nazi occupation and its savagery are clearly shown. Teenage resistants, caught by the Germans and their French collaborators, are brutally tortured then shot.

Beyond the sumptuous costumes and glamorous settings, The New Look deftly raises sharp questions about the grey areas between compromise and outright collaboration — questions that are still being asked in France. Chanel N°5 now leaves a decidedly bad smell.

Oppenheimer swept the Oscars, winning seven awards. Robert Oppenheimer, dubbed “the father of the atomic bomb”, appears in Netflix’s epic documentary series Turning Point: The Bomb and the Cold War. The nine episodes are an ambitious attempt to recount modern international history from 1945 up to the present day.

Director Brian Knappenberger takes a classic approach to documentary making, weaving together contemporary footage with talking-heads interviews, including senior figures such as Condoleezza Rice, former U.S Secretary of State and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

In the hands of unskilled filmmakers, this can make for a somewhat ponderous approach. But Knappenberger deftly controls the mix to keep the dramatic tension high, whilst not patronising the viewer.

Some of the archive footage is unsurprising: Stalin, Churchill and Truman grinning and gladhanding at Potsdam in 1945 whilst slicing up the globe like a Christmas turkey. But much is unexpected, even shocking. The first episode opens with the war in Ukraine, but mainly focuses on the invention of the atomic bomb. The weapon had been designed and built in less than a year. Nobody really knew what it would do to a large urban settlement.

Knappenberg deploys contemporary American propaganda to argue that the Japanese — unlike the Germans — were seen as less than human: cartoon figures with gross, distended features, thus tempering any qualms about incinerating an entire city in a single explosion.

Nor was there any concern for Americans near the Trinity test site in New Mexico. As the author Lesley M.M. Blume points out, almost 500,000 people lived within 150 miles of Trinity.

Locals were neither evacuated nor informed. Forty miles away, ten young teenage girls were asleep at a dance camp when the test bomb went off. The explosion threw them out of their beds. Later that day they played outside in what they called “hot snow” — fallout. Only one survived to the age of thirty.

The war in Ukraine is already a proxy fight between NATO and Russia. The Cold War has been reanimated and is warming up. That same fear that saw 1950s schoolchildren practise hiding under their desks in case the bomb went off is back — and not only in Kyiv. The Bomb and the Cold War is as timely as it is informative.

Drought, now showing on Channel 4’s Walter Presents, is brighter, more upbeat viewing. It unfolds in the sun-parched, arid borderland between Spain and Portugal.

When a reservoir runs low, two skeletons are discovered lying in the dusty remains of an abandoned village, flooded decades ago. The dead were shot, which is the cue for Inspector Dani Yanes to take on the case. Elena Rivera gives a feisty, convincing performance as the dogged cop determined to find justice.

She’s an engaging heroine, with the requisite chaotic love life and a taste for stylish leather jackets and drinking alone in bars. But Yanes’s enquiries are not welcomed by the powers that rule the small town where she lives.

And especially not by Luis Barbosa, the sinister local businessman who has very dark secrets he does not want exposed to the bright Spanish sunshine.

Provincial Iberian life, with its web of gossip, intrigue and double-dealing is vividly evoked — especially when the threats ramp up and Yanes finds her investigation is bringing her perilously close to home.

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