Napoleon & Dior

PEOPLE - Joanne Rae M. Ramirez - The Philippine Star
Napoleon & Dior
Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte in Ridley Scott’s Napoleon. You be the judge.

“This is the story of how creation helped return spirit and life to the world.” — The New Look

Over the long weekend, I took a big bite off Apple+ TV, staying glued to Napoleon (starring Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte) and The New Look (starring Ben Mendelsohn as Christian Dior and Juliette Binoche as Coco Chanel).

Both series are inspired by real people and true events. I like to think of The New Look more as a Dior story — in the credits, Binoche (Chanel) takes second billing to Mendelsohn (Dior) — though it stitches together the colorful tapestry of the lives of Dior, Chanel, Balenciaga, Balmain, Cardin and Lelong. It’s a high-end boutique of a story, like walking down a showroom where everywhere you turn is a great name in French haute couture. The costumes, the suits, the maisons of the era are…timeless. Even the desk of Dior reminds me of a desk my late father used to have in the ‘60s.

Dior, Chanel, Balenciaga, Balmain, Cardin, Givenchy were real people who lived through, struggled and succeeded in the beginning, in the throes and the end of World War II. Today, they  are “signatures” or “brands” known instantly by their initials.

You understand, why, even in the pandemic past, designers set out to work and create, even just protective wear and fancy face masks; and how after the pandemic, women were raring to come out of the closet with billowy ballgowns, from debutantes to brides. Simplicity, in the post-pandemic social era, was like a button out of place. I digress, back to the movie.

I loved Mendelsohn’s portrayal of Dior. Genteel, gentle, effeminate, one thought not to have the fortitude to make hard decisions. B_lls, n’est-ce pas?

But at crucial times in his life, he always rose to the occasion, bit the bullet but also swallowed his pride in the name of friendship and decency.

One witnesses in the movie the version of a barkada composed of Dior, his partner Jacques, Balmain and Balenciaga, among others. Having a posse or a tribe seems to be a basic need and seeing the names on your bags or perfume bottles sharing a drink, laughing, talking, arguing and supporting each other is like seeing characters in your storybook as people, not logos.

The New Look starring Ben Mendelsohn as Christian Dior (center) and Juliette Binoche as Coco Chanel (right).

I for one, will never look at a Dior bag the same way again. Now, I appreciate the history behind the initials. I admire Dior, who struggled despite his insecurities, his past, his pain, to bring to the world The New Look post-World War II.

According to Vogue, The New Look “takes its name from a silhouette that emerged from Christian Dior’s debut collection. Presented on Feb. 12, 1947, in the midst of a positively Arctic winter, his curvy silhouette was an unparalleled success both on a symbolic level (it represented the rebirth of the French couture after the German occupation of World War II).”

“After the austerity of the war years, they also represented a return to a decorative femininity,” says Vogue. Just my type of silhouette to this day.

For added drama is the story of Christian’s younger  and only sister Catherine Dior, seamlessly embroidered into the series. Catherine was a French Resistance Fighter, and reportedly the inspiration behind the “Miss Dior” perfume line. Does she return from the Nazi work camps to witness her brother’s success? The answer comes before the series ends.

The House of Dior, now owned by French luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH, has employed some of the greatest minds in fashion history, including Yves Saint Laurent and John Galliano. Take a bow, Christian!


Chanel, on the other hand, is portrayed as a mataray and brilliant femme fatale, unapologetically, too, by the brilliant Juliette Binoche.  Like Dior, she is a survivor of World War II and its politics. Unlike Dior, her designs aren’t feminine. They’re defiantly attractive. They’re suits, skirts, trousers, but tailored so magnificently and accessorized by strands and strands of pearls and eye-popping brooches.

If Dior had a barkada and a tightly-knit circle of “bros,” Chanel is portrayed to have a BFF, Elsa Lombardi, with whom she had a love-hate relationship. She also made decisions or was forced to make decisions because of the men in her life — from her nephew, her business partners, to her lover. Whatever decisions she had made, the Chanel look is iconic still — the Chanel suit, the quilted purse, the “little black dress”  and of course, Chanel No. 5. The latter is history and drama distilled in a bottle.


If The New Look is about how Dior came to rule the world by conquering the runway, Napoleon, on the other hand, is about how the Corsican-born soldier came to rule his world by strategy and might. But unlike Dior, Napoleon ultimately lived not to create but to conquer, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. According to online sources, some three million perished in the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s.

Napoleon, directed by the legendary Ridley Scott, is also a love story. Napoleon’s love and seemingly insatiable need for Josephine (portrayed by Vanessa Kirby of The Crown) sometimes even took precedence over his battles. A conqueror, he was Josephine’s conquest. His letters to her professing his feelings have become world-famous. That need for one woman, sometimes to the exclusion of all else,  is still the basis for many modern-day decisions, like the abdication of King Edward VIII.

Napoleon’s battle scenes were epic, Ridley Scott’s new millennium version of Cecille B. de Mille’s biblical masterpieces. But the battles were also won in Napoleon Bonaparte’s head, because of his strategic mind. A strategic mind vanquishes all. Alas, the Duke of Wellington proved he also had such a mind in the Battle of Waterloo.

So what do these two mini-series, both of which I recommend, have in common? Aside from Napoleon and Dior being both French, these two leading men (real and reel) ruled the world. Napoleon at one time, Dior, well — his reign isn’t over. You be the judge of history. *

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