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Daniel Brühl Shines as a Hero and a Villain in Becoming Karl Lagerfeld

The Hulu series also cements the irresistible Théodore Pellerin as one of 2024's breakout stars.
  • Daniel Brühl and Théodore Pellerin in Becoming Karl Lagerfeld (Photo: Caroline Dubois, Jour Premier/Disney)
    Daniel Brühl and Théodore Pellerin in Becoming Karl Lagerfeld (Photo: Caroline Dubois, Jour Premier/Disney)

    Even if you know very little about fashion, the name Karl Lagerfeld is one you have likely heard uttered. And if you do know fashion, the enigmatic image Lagerfeld (who died in 2019 at the age of 85) crafted is one full of contradictions and omissions. Becoming Karl Lagerfeld is not concerned with the white-haired figure known to millions worldwide, focusing instead on the decade in which the German couturier was rising but still languishing in rival Yves Saint Laurent’s shadow. Set predominantly in 1970s Paris, the six-part limited series is an illuminating exploration of the couture epicenter and what it takes to find success and respect.

    Biopics focusing on designers are en vogue, and those wanting more glamor and runway shows after watching Apple TV+'s Christian Dior and Coco Chanel-focused The New Look are in luck. The recent Cristóbal Balenciaga gave Dior’s contemporary the sober yet elegant limited series treatment, and in 2021, Netflix’s Halston leaned into partying and scandal. Becoming Karl Lagerfeld lands somewhere in the middle in how it depicts the work and era while peeling back the layers of the individual. Whereas Dior and Balenciaga are lesser-known personalities in 2024, Daniel Brühl embraces the challenge of portraying the inner life of a figure who meticulously controlled his public persona. The New Look opted for English with French accents; there is no such distraction here, and it is equally telling when Karl speaks in French or his native German tongue.

    Adapted from Raphaëlle Bacqué’s 2020 bestseller Kaiser Karl, creator Isaure Pisani-Ferry wisely deploys the instantly charming Jacques de Bascher (Théodore Pellerin) as the audience's entry point gliding into this exclusive neon-lit world. Wannabe writer Jacques is not part of the jet set but will soon become a muse and object of desire in a love triangle featuring Karl’s frenemy and current king of haute couture, Yves Saint Laurent (Arnaud Valois). While the love story features familiar ingredients, Karl’s overwhelming terror in the face of intimacy in an era of sexual liberation adds a noteworthy dimension to the opposites-attract pairing of Karl and Jacques.

    Homophobia isn’t absent from the show’s setting, but Karl’s complicated relationship with Jacques is as much about control as it is about ambition. On the surface, Jacques embraces the dandy life without a second thought, but his sociable and sexual ease masks his own creative anxiety. Meanwhile, Karl is so driven by work and proving himself that he neglects and schemes against those close to him. Brühl and Pellerin deftly portray the magnetic pull that exists even in a platonic-lover setup. It is a testament to Pellerin, who’s fresh off playing Revolutionary War hero Lafayette in Franklin, that Jacques’ absence is always palpable.

    The noticeable vacuum is necessary as Karl lets his mask entirely slip when alone, revealing how every slight has shaped him. Brühl is terrific throughout, but the scenes in which the camera lingers on his face, and his muscles relax to show Karl’s vulnerabilities emphasize why the Golden Globe-nominated actor has made a mark at playing heroes, villains, and all shades in between. While Becoming Karl Lagerfeld could go harder on its subject, it is far from a sanitized presentation, and his manipulative and cruel streak plays out in emotionally devastating ways.

    One ongoing thread involves Karl’s self-loathing stemming from his penchant for pastries and confectionery. He sees this hunger as a weakness, and it is a stark contrast to how easy he finds it to say no to drugs and booze (meanwhile, Jacques hasn’t met a drug he won’t take). This psychological aspect underscores his propensity for myth-making and nods at future comments without clumsily addressing those controversies directly (because they haven’t happened yet). Even more so than appearance, the one thing that he cannot change about himself contributes to his constant need to prove himself. As a German who moved to Paris not long after WWII, Karl thinks France’s fashion elite will never accept him, and his need to prove himself colors his judgment.

    While an in-depth knowledge of the inner workings of Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode ('Federation of Haute Couture and Fashion') is not necessary, knowing that prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) is considered inferior to luxury custom-made haute couture is essential in understanding specific dynamics. Businessman Pierre Bergé (Alex Lutz) reflects the attitude that an outsider like Karl has no place in this sacred space and must make do with churning out off-the-rack designs for other labels. The clash of egos is palpable each time the council meets, and the ‘70s sees a shift in French dominance (this is where it will be helpful if you have seen Halston). The politics, pettiness, and this industry's importance to the overall economy are endlessly fascinating once you figure out the players and the rules of engagement — and Karl seems destined to get shut out.

    No expense is spared in the choice of lavish locations, whether in the French capital, a countryside chateau, Rome, or Monaco. Every single stitch of clothing, from Karl’s meticulous pattern-clashing outfits, complete with an array of eye-catching accessories, to Jacques in silk scarves and perfectly tailored suits, is a feast for the eyes. Costume designer Pascaline Chavanne taps into the artistry of this industry and the playful aesthetic of the 1970s before Karl settled on his signature black-and-white palette.

    Becoming Karl Lagerfeld doesn’t spoon-feed the audience, declining to use flashbacks or laying out what will come via title cards. What might read as a slight portrayal lacking in depth is a purposeful snapshot that will leave you wanting to know more. This approach has some shortcomings, but it is ultimately a triumph in the annals of fashion designer TV depictions. Like its subject, Becoming Karl Lagerfeld is a contradiction tied in a silk bow.

    Becoming Karl Lagerfeld premieres June 7 on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina

    TOPICS: Becoming Karl Lagerfeld, Hulu, Daniel Brühl, Karl Lagerfeld, Théodore Pellerin