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'Becoming Karl Lagerfeld' is the smart, dishy backstory of a style icon

Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld (Daniel Brühl), left, meets and falls in love with Jacques de Bascher (Théodore Pellerin) in <em>Becoming Karl Lagerfeld</em>.
Caroline Dubois, Jour Premier
Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld (Daniel Brühl), left, meets and falls in love with Jacques de Bascher (Théodore Pellerin) in Becoming Karl Lagerfeld.

We live in an age obsessed with self-creation. Our social media-fueled culture is less about changing the world than about shaping how the world sees us.

Nobody did it any better than Karl Lagerfeld, who died in 2019 after four decades as a lion king in the fashion world. Beginning as a somewhat ridiculous outsider from Germany, Lagerfeld used his genius for self-invention to wind up designing for Fendi, resurrecting the moribund house of Chanel and creating a personal look so distinctive — white hair, dark sunglasses, fingerless gloves and crisp detachable collars — that it could serve as the emoji for Fashion Designer.

His hard-won rise in ‘70s Paris is the theme of Becoming Karl Lagerfeld, a smart, dishy, hugely entertaining new French series on Hulu. The show doesn’t pretend to offer the definitive take on an enormously complicated man. Instead, its brisk six episodes offer emblematic incidents — or perhaps pressure points — that take us surprisingly deep inside a figure who moved constantly forward, spurred on by ambition, loneliness and a keen sense of self-protection.

We first meet Karl in Paris through the eyes of Jacques de Bascher, a self-destructive young aristocrat played with scene-stealing charisma by the French Canadian actor Théodore Pellerin. Always looking for distractions, Jacques fixates on the uncharismatic Karl — that’s the superb German actor Daniel Brühl — who at this point is something of a brainy schlub who lives with his acerbic mother and stuffs his face with sweets when he’s angry. You know you’re watching a French series, not an American one, when, in this show’s equivalent of a meet cute, Jacques and Karl discover their affinity by quoting the daunting Austrian novelist Robert Musil.

Jacques dreams of being a great writer, but he fritters away his gifts in drink and drugs and sex; he yearns for love. Although Karl cares for him, he’s too relentless a work-machine to provide such consolations. Karl never stops hustling and scheming. He’s chasing a stardom to equal his one-time-friend, now-nemesis Yves Saint Laurent — that’s a terrific Arnaud Valois — who’s celebrated as a haute-couture genius with his own label while Karl toils away on ready-to-wear for the house of Chloe.

Jacques and Karl share a long, tortuous, asexual sort of love. Their relationship becomes the through-line of Karl’s story, which includes his battles with fashion power broker Pierre Bergé, Jacques’ disastrous affair with Saint Laurent, and Karl’s struggles designing a dress for Marlene Dietrich who pointedly asks, “Do you have a style?” This was always the big question about Lagerfeld, who, like that other self-inventor, David Bowie, tried on many styles and used whichever one would help him get ahead at that moment.

In this year’s other fashion series, The New Look, Christian Dior and Coco Chanel felt like animatronic creatures in a diorama. By contrast, Becoming Karl Lagerfeld feels urgent and alive — like a present day story that happens to be set in the past. Whether it’s Jacques’ desperation, Karl’s impacted passion or shocking betrayals, the show pulses with feeling, even wringing genuine poignancy from the pop song “Take on Me.”

Without flaunting its seriousness, the show gets you thinking about the characters — for instance, how the controlled Karl and out-of-control Jacques are complementary halves of a complete human being. And it explores the isolation, even lunacy lurking inside the quest for fame.

Focusing on a brief period of time, Becoming Karl Lagerfeld never overtly tries to explain its often-contradictory hero. Instead, it lets Brühl reveal the powerful emotions that flit across Karl’s face even as he attempts to bottle them up. By the end, I felt I understood him surprisingly well and grasped how he could become a fashion legend.

Now is the show completely true? Did Dietrich really castigate Karl for a dress he made her? Did Karl really flee when Jacques tried to sleep with him? Who cares! The opening crawl acknowledges that much of the action is fictionalized. Besides, Becoming Karl Lagerfeld isn’t about the Kennedy assassination or World War II. It’s about a fashion designer, one who cultivated his personal mythology and became notorious for his delight in saying reprehensible things.

“I have no human feelings,” Lagerfeld famously told an interviewer. What he’d like least about this show, I suspect, is that it shows he did.

Copyright 2024 NPR

John Powers
John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.