Hulu Biopic Becoming Karl Lagerfeld Just Barely Scratches the Surface of This Controversial Figure

Or, as the French would say, beau parleur, mais rien dans les pantalon.

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Hulu Biopic Becoming Karl Lagerfeld Just Barely Scratches the Surface of This Controversial Figure

There’s a scene in the fourth episode of the Hulu miniseries Becoming Karl Largerfeld where the eponymous fashion diva (portrayed by Daniel Brühl) and his companion Jacques de Bascher (On Becoming a God in Central Florida’s Théodore Pellerin) are trying to wine and dine an American perfume expert and take her to the tres chic nightclub Le Sept. 

What this woman’s name is, or even what she looks like, isn’t really important. She’s merely a stepping stone in Largerfeld’s Machavillian scheme for respect and world domination. So neither of these men have qualms with ignoring her and discussing a more pressing issue: they may not be able to get into the nightclub because Yves Saint Laurent’s (personal and professional) partner Pierre Bergé (portrayed by Alex Lutz) is outside and he and Jacques have beef.

A turf war erupts. If this were The Sopranos or The Wire, shots would have been fired and some quotable dialogue would have been uttered. But, because these are classy designers and their entourage, some punches are pulled, but, for the most part it comes down to ego: does the nightclub want to lose the patronage of Saint Laurent, the most famous label and person in the industry? Or will Lagerfeld and his ilk be denied entry?

If you are watching this series with only a cursory knowledge of who Lagerfeld was—he of the dark sunglasses, the ponytail, the Birman cat, the propensity for fatphobic and anti-migrant sentiments—then you are the unnamed American lady. It isn’t even that the show, which is created by Isaure Pisani-Ferry, Jennifer Have, and Raphaëlle Bacqué, is mostly in French. It’s that it just gives you a taste of this world without fully delving into how it works or why you’re probably there to begin with (to learn about the gossip and drama within it). 

Most biopic series go in one of three ways: they attempt to justify the unjustifiable (Hulu’s Mrs. America, about conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly), lionize the complicated (Hulu’s The Great, about the Russian Empress Catherine II), or show just how much the subjects drank their own Kool-Aid (Apple TV+’s WeCrashed, about the rise and stupendous fall of the WeWork “lifestyle”), Becoming Karl Lagerfeld just barely scratches the surface of what kind of a person the designer was. Viewers don’t truly understand the roots of his motives and evil doings. And, therefore, we cannot really attempt to align with him, nor hate or mock him for them. 

There’s a French saying beau parleur, mais rien dans les pantalon (or, all talk; nothing in his pants). Becoming Karl Lagerfeld could have been a hardened take-down of a fragile and self-destructive man who used people as pawns. It could have been a sympathetic look at a German-born outsider who would never be taken seriously by the haute couture set. It’s not even entirely clear what made him such a noteworthy designer. Saint Laurent had the women’s tuxedo, Christian Dior had the New Look. Emilio Pucci had prints, Halston had his drapery. Diane von Furstenberg has the wrap dress. Lagerfeld obviously had… lots of things, I’m sure. But we’re not really told what they were. 

Becoming Karl Lagerfeld concentrates on about a decade of the designer’s life, starting in 1972 when he feels shunned by his old friend Saint Laurent who is riding high as fashion’s Golden Boy (even if he is having panic attacks and feeling the pressure to keep wowing the crowds—facts he tells his chum “Karlito,” but that gain him no sympathy). 

Seemingly emasculated and wanting to show that he has something the dashing Saint Laurent does not, Lagerfeld takes up with the slender, young, and beautiful de Bascher. But, despite de Bascher’s wishes—and without any true explaining to the audience as to why—Lagerfeld can never bring himself to consummate their partnership and instead uses the lad as a loaded grenade to throw into Saint Laurent and Bergé’s relationship. 

This is one of many ways Lagerfeld uses people, especially de Bascher, in his quest for respect. His mother, Lisa Kreuzer’s Elisabeth, is (bless her heart) fine with the lack of work-life balance. Others, like de Bascher, are not. The two will continue to float destructively in and out of each other’s lives, with Lagerfeld binge-eating desserts and croissant and wearing a corset, and de Bascher finding vices more commonly associated with these types of shows (drugs, sex, riskier drugs, more sex). 

Lagerfeld’s dream is to have his own fashion label, although he won’t admit it to others. He bites the hand that feeds him at Chloe, the fashion house created by Gaby Aghion (portrayed by Agnès Jaoui), and somehow still sticks around. He completely blows it when given the opportunity to dress fellow German icon Marlene Dietrich (Sunnyi Melles, giving it her all in her portrayal of the aged screen siren). Those who barely understand this industry will wonder why he’s supposed to feel rewarded at the end when he lands the job that will cement his legacy if not his name.

There was a chance here for Becoming Karl Lagerfeld to have an interesting conversation about the quest for fame and what (and who) one must sacrifice to achieve it. In fact, plenty of famous people (or actors playing famous people, like Paul Spera as Andy Warhol) are seen commenting as such. But, because it doesn’t seem like Brühl’s Lagerfeld truly breaks bad or seems remorseful for his actions, this conversation gets both a late start (you have to get to Episode 4 before anything truly interesting happens) and fizzles out. 

Conversely, this story is meant to be a parallel biography of de Bascher, a fascinating human from what I can find online and who would have eviscerated today’s reality TV stars who are “famous for being famous.” And Pellerin, with the help of some incredible costume and hair and makeup work, truly fits the part. A scene of him dancing in a disco, happy and oblivious as to how his benefactor is about to screw him over, is quite sad. 

But we’re talking about Lagerfeld, a man whose parents had Nazi ties and would say in 2009 that “no one wants to see curvy women” (among many other attacks against women above a size two).

In later life, he’d criticize German Chancellor Angela Merkel for opening her country’s borders to migrants by saying “even if there are decades between them—kill millions of Jews so you can bring millions of their worst enemies in their place.” This, intentionally or not, reads like Donald Trump’s “some, I assume, are good people” speech.

So pick a lane: make him sympathetic and tell me where all of his insecurities come from. Or make him truly wicked and vengeful. Don’t tell me things in a pretty French accent and then not deliver the goods.

All episodes of Becoming Karl Lagerfeld premiere June 7th on Hulu.

Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in CosmopolitanVultureThe Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, and three daughters (two of whom are cats).

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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