Director Jalil Lespert’s new biopic, Yves Saint Laurent, is fairly entertaining and well acted, especially by the two leads: Comédie Française actors Pierre Niney and Guillaume Gallienne as Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, respectively. It is not so much a life of YSL, however, as it is a life of YSL as seen by Pierre Bergé, his lifelong companion and business partner, who managed all the designer’s affairs while he was alive and now seems intent on managing his posthumous image as well. The film even has a voiceover narration from Bergé’s point of view (why? was he one of the financial backers?).
The film’s message is that YSL was a fragile genius – manic-depressive and given to extreme abuse of alcohol and drugs – and that his success would not have been possible without Bergé’s micromanagement of his life and business. This is very probably true, but it is all rather too neatly packaged here.
The film opens with the prim, abstemious, timid young YSL living with his family in Oran, Algeria, during the (vaguely alluded to) Algerian War. Inspired by his beautiful clotheshorse of a mother, he wants to design dresses. We next see him in Paris, working for Christian Dior, the couture star of the 1950s. When the master dies, the fashion world is shocked when the 21-year-old YSL is chosen to replace him as the house’s artistic director.
By this time the designer has already met and is living with Bergé. When a mental breakdown leads to his being fired by the house of Dior, Bergé insists that Saint Laurent sue and, when he wins, invest the money in his own house.
Then begins the march through time: a slow start in the fashion world followed by the huge success of the Mondrian dress in 1965; dancing and flirting in the jazz clubs of Saint Germain des Prés; the glamorous whirlwind of the Parisian fashion world; the hippie years, with lots of long hair, drugs and free sex; and the gradual decline leading to Saint Laurent’s retirement in 2002.
To the film’s credit, it does not present either Saint Laurent or Bergé as saints – we see them occasionally betraying or hurting each other while their relationship remains solid – but it stays on message all the way through: kind, strong, pragmatic Bergé saves the day every time brilliant but unstable Saint Laurent starts to self-destruct.
Luckily for viewers of the 146-minute film, when that message starts to get repetitive, the movie ends, quite abruptly, with a sudden flash-forward to an older, gray-haired Bergé after the death of Saint Laurent.
The film’s music, by the way, is annoyingly melodramatic and intrusive, always chiming in to tell us what we should be feeling in a particular scene.
One wonders what YSL himself would have thought of this movie, made only five years after his death. The lingering impression is one of sadness in spite of the designer’s great success and wealth. But while it tells us often that the man was a genius, it only skims the surface of his life without delving into any of the sources of his neuroses or creativity.
It’s easy to say that that’s the way biopics are, but a more inventive approach like that taken by Joann Sfar in Gainsbourg (Vie Héroïque), in which the French singer Serge Gainsbourg’s demons come to life and participate in the story as animated figures, might have told us a lot more about this fragile genius.
While it is full of convincing period details and costumes from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, I think even fashion fanatics will be disappointed with this movie, which won’t tell them anything they don’t already know about Yves Saint Laurent.