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Daniel Brühl in Hulu Fashion Biopic

Daniel Brühl in Hulu Fashion Biopic

More than once in Hulu’s Becoming Karl Lagerfeld, the question comes up of what its subject’s style actually is. The answers tend to be equivocal. He’s a “ready-to-wear mercenary” and a “boy wonder” overflowing with ideas. He’s got 20 different modes, and no single signature. His style is to change his style, he says — the noncommittal reply of a man still figuring it out.

For an ascendant artist to not totally know himself is one thing. For the six-part biopic about him not to know is another. Being Karl Lagerfeld is plenty curious about the German designer’s life, particularly the calculations that built his career and the personal relationships that threatened to derail it. But it never captures the essence of who he was or the world he lived in — or what any of that means for a viewer in 2024.

Becoming Karl Lagerfeld

The Bottom Line

An indecisive shrug of a biography.

Airdate: Friday, June 7 (Hulu)
Cast: Daniel Brühl, Théodore Pellerin, Arnaud Valois, Alex Lutz, Agnès Jaoui
Creators: Isaure Pisani-Ferry, Jennifer Have, Raphaëlle Bacqué

If anything, the clearest image that creators Isaure Pisani-Ferry, Jennifer Have and Raphaëlle Bacqué have of Karl (Daniel Brühl) is not as an artist, but a careerist. By the early 1970s, he’s thriving as a freelancer, cranking out sketches to be turned into dresses under other designers’ names. Despite his insistence that he prefers anonymity, though, his actions betray loftier ambitions. Over the next decade, he schemes his way up the hierarchy of French fashion like a Targaryen plotting his way through Westeros: He spreads rumors, dangles promises and threats, makes strategic alliances and calculated betrayals. “Designers who make art bore me. You are a businessman,” a manufacturer tells him approvingly. Karl looks unhappy with the assessment. But Becoming Karl Lagerfeld barely tries to mount a counterargument.

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It’s not that Karl seems insincere about his passion for his craft. One of the first cracks in his aloof exterior comes in the premiere, when he attends another designer’s show. As the models come out, his face is overcome with admiration, jealousy, sublime wonder. Fashion is “a way of embodying the zeitgeist, of reflecting society’s true nature,” he explains to a bored companion at the same event, and he clearly means it. But Becoming Karl Lagerfeld does not expand on this thesis. While its characters are undeniably stylish (“You dress like the Sun King,” an admirer teases Karl), the series makes little effort to demonstrate what Karl’s looks say about himself or the times he’s living in, or how they differ from those of his competitors. Like Apple TV+’s The New Look, it’s a show that purports to be about fashion but lacks the language to engage with it on a deeper level.

It is on somewhat firmer ground dissecting Lagerfeld’s social relationships. The tale of his meteoric rise is interwoven with the ups and downs of his relationship with Jacques de Bascher (Théodore Pellerin), a socialite who catches his eye one night at a club. Jacques also happens to attract the attention of Yves Saint Laurent (Arnaud Valois), Karl’s ex-friend-turned-rival — which in turn draws the fury of Pierre Bergé (Alex Lutz), Yves’ professional and personal partner, who already despises Karl. Karl is no more straightforward in his love life than he is at work, and the dynamics between the toxic foursome play out in bitchy comments and passive-aggressive hookups that occasionally spill over into physical violence.

But here, too, Becoming Karl Lagerfeld struggles to take a perspective. Pellerin is arresting as Jacques, his playful magnetism gradually giving way to aimless despair. And Brühl’s performance is most compelling in the rare moments when Karl lets his façade crack, trying and failing to expose the most vulnerable parts of himself to Jacques. (Meanwhile, Valois and Lutz are stuck in the less rewarding roles of “vaguely troubled creative” and “cartoon villain.”) But it’s never clear what’s keeping this troubled pair together, beyond the fact that the late Lagerfeld’s real life decrees it. Nor can the show decide what kind of angle it wants to put on this entire saga — whether it’s a catty soap or a sensitive character study, an earnest romance or a cynical business lesson.

“I hide myself every day,” Karl confesses in an unusual fit of candor, explaining that he lies about his age and molds his body with shapewear because “if people saw me as I am, they’d pass me by.” Better, in his mind, to put on whatever flattering face the world might prefer to see that day, even if it means no one ever gets to know the real Karl. As a life philosophy, it’s coherent if a bit sad, and tracks with what we’ve come to understand of both his slipperiness and his self-consciousness. As an approach to painting a televisual portrait of him, however, it leaves much to be desired.

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