Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent, the first of two films out this year dedicated to the French fashion legend (the second, directed by Bertrand Bonello comes out in October), offers a look at the life of a man considered more a great artist than a simple clothes designer. Saint Laurent was the first designer to have a retrospective of his work at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City and many of his collections were considered to be groundbreaking. Lespert’s film focuses on Saint Laurent from his early days as assistant to Christian Dior to the setting up of his own haute couture fashion house and his eventual downward spiral into drink and drugs. Alongside the stunning recreation of post-war France and a fascinating glimpse into the fashion world of the 50s, 60s and 70s, the film boasts exquisite central performances from Pierre Niney as Saint Laurent and Guillaume Gallienne as his life-partner and right-hand man, Pierre Bergé.
Lespert’s Saint Laurent is a timid, sensitive soul who reluctantly leaves his home and family behind in Algeria at the tender age of 17 to take up his job with Dior. Despite his youth, he is at home among the wealth and glamour of the French fashion world and when Dior unexpectedly dies at the age of 52, Saint Laurent rises to become Haute Couture designer. All is well until he is conscripted into the French army to fight the Algerian war of Independence and his ‘sensitive nature’ is diagnosed as bi-polar disorder. He is removed as Dior’s chief designer and with the money from a successful law suit for breach of contract, Saint Laurent and Bergé create their own fashion house.
There’s enough material in the first three decades of the designer’s life to make a film in itself and perhaps Lespert should have left it there. What follows is Saint Laurent’s rise to fame, his hobnobbing with the likes of Andy Warhol and his drug and drink addiction – in short your average, everyday tale of the pampered, rich celebrity. The latter half of the film leaves behind St Laurent’s creative dilemmas and struggles to find direction, swinging between the designer’s life of excess in Paris and at his second home in Marrakech. Even the relationship between Saint Laurent and Bergé has run its course and what follows is scene after scene of the designer’s slow physical ruin and little else.
But who could fault Niney and Gallienne? If the physical portrayal of their homosexual relationship is on the coy side, there’s no doubting the chemistry that brought the two together. How many successful businesses are based on creative genius being directed and controlled by someone with an eye for profit? But Gallienne shows Bergé touchingly yearns to be less of a a dyed-in-the-wool businessman and more of a dope-smoking bohemian like his protege. And some of the films lighter moments are shots of Bergé in Morocco trying to hang out with the in-crowd in his hippie shirt and shorts.
Tall and rangy, like YSL, Niney’s physical resemblance to the designer pales into insignificance against his stunning reincarnation of the man himself. Niney creates a man who was considered a creative genius by the fashion world, but recognised his talent was only smoke and mirrors. Niney has already demonstrated an admirable talent for both comedy and drama and is one of the most gifted of today’s younger generation of French actors. Gallienne too has won audiences over with his recent film Les Garcons et Guillaume à Table although Yves Saint Laurent shows him in a completely different register. Despite its shortcomings, Yves Saint Laurent is an intelligent look at one of the men who has greatly influenced fashion today.
DVD subtitled in English