A formulaic, slick-looking biopic that would have been better had it dug a little deeper.
Yves Saint Laurent
Yves Saint Laurent changed the face of fashion on numerous occasions, innovating through design, expanding the horizons of the art form like few else in the 20th century. Alas, Jalil Lespert’s tribute to the man, Yves Saint Laurent, finds itself constricted by boundaries the man it pays tribute to would have broken through. It’s got all the biopic trappings that make us groan, following the same formula that stunts 90 percent of entries in the genre, keeping them from achieving true artistry. It’s that terrible biopic irony in which filmmaker tries so hard to faithfully represent their subject’s life events, achievements, and relationships that they forget to do the one thing that would truly do them justice: Make a great movie.
Lespert focuses on Saint Laurent’s career, following the designer from his early years as artistic director of House of Dior at age 21, to his later years, when he became plagued by mental and physical illness as a result of years of substance abuse. Pierre Niney stars and fits the role of the lanky, angular-faced Saint Laurent nicely. His gradual physical transformation over the course of the film is handled well by the makeup crew, and his increasingly fidgety mannerisms and evolving anxiety meet the same standard of quality, portraying the legendary figure’s mental deterioration with respect without glossing it up (much of what we see is unflattering).
At first, Saint Laurent is a shy, unassuming boy wonder with a warm personality working in Paris. He debuts with an inspired line of clothing that garners him loads of adulation, along with which come responsibilities he has no time or patience for. The pressures of heading up the world’s biggest fashion house begin to chip away at him as he breaks into random fits of rage. The breaking point comes when Saint Laurent is drafted to the French army, prompting a mental breakdown that would mark the beginning of his steep descent into manic depression.
The film is narrated by his business partner and lover, Pierre Bergé (Guillaume Gallienne), speaking to Saint Laurent in their advanced years. While the voiceovers are nice bookends to the story (the film’s tragic final shots are particularly heartbreaking), they do little to enhance or illuminate everything in between. Bergé and Saint Laurent’s sometimes wildly sexual, sometimes wildly combative relationship is threatened several times by pretty boys Saint Laurent meets at coke parties, and more interestingly by his muse, Victoire Doutreleau (Charlotte Le Bon), who has a quick fling with Bergé. These romantic interludes only serve to sidetrack the film, offering little insight into our subject’s state of mind.
Niney embodies Saint Laurent with an anxious rage while exuding the flare of a true fashion pioneer. Almost bird-like in appearance, he slinks through his environment, timid, and yet ready to burst with fury at any second. It’s a finely constructed physical performance, but the material gives Niney little emotional depth to explore. The film views Saint Laurent from a distance, and we never feel as though we’re invited into his head. This is exacerbated by Bergé’s narration, which rears its ugly head every time we begin to feel a sense of intimacy and immediacy.
If nothing else, Lespert’s crafted an incredibly slick-looking film. The period costumes are visions of beauty, particularly the Mondrian dresses Saint Laurent was so famous for. The fashion show sequences will likely make fans of YSL weep. The film’s third act focuses too keenly on drug abuse, amplifying the tragedy of Saint Laurent’s addiction while failing to explore his inner turmoil. Yves Saint Laurent is a formulaic “fallen genius” film that represents its influential subject and the fashion industry respectfully, but it would have been a better film had it just dug a little deeper.