As biopics go, Yves Saint-Laurent is one of the shortest in contemporary film, clocking in at a mere 106 minutes. Despite the running time though, the debut from French actor-turned-director Jelil Lespert achieves much. It shows us how Saint-Laurent changed the world of fashion while the new fashions of social life changed his life. By the end of the biopic, he is a multifaceted figure full of contradictions and complexities – although he is still more of an icon that a character.
The film chronicles about 30 years of the famed fashion designer’s life, beginning at his early tutelage under Christian Dior. While more of an episodic biography than a film where the artist is motivated by a central goal, Yves Saint-Laurent does try on many of the (figurative) clothes the designer wore during his stint as the head of France’s premiere fashion house (and later his own establishment). Saint-Laurent was a repressed homosexual, bullied as a young boy growing up in Algeria and forced to veil his identity. He was also a meticulous artist, a short-tempered perfectionist and a brilliant mind. He fell in love with one man while lusting over many others who would do anything he desired.
Saint-Laurent was a shy boy and manic-depressive who stayed locked in his room, finishing sketches and drawings that would later go on to influence the world of haute couture. At the start, he is lost without his work, needing to attain such a focus that he did not drink alcohol. That was not the case later in his career, after some splashy parties turned him into a more hedonistic type, curious about hallucinogens and other abuses.
As played by Pierre Niney, a skinny French actor with ruffled hair and a bulbous nose that makes him look like Andrew Garfield’s older brother, Saint-Laurent is poised in stance but often twitching his face or shaking his hands. Under immense pressure to live up to lofty expectations, both before and after he took over the House of Dior, the title character rarely cracks a smile. You can always tell that he is thinking about how to perfect a design to make it more ravishing. (Unsurprisingly, the film’s costume design is spectacular, on the runway and off.)
The film focuses much of its time on Saint-Laurent’s liberated sexuality, with his first love, businessman Pierre Bergé (Guillaume Gallienne), and a mélange of other flings that later greeted the media sensation. Bergé gets the framing voice-over narrative, reminiscing about his time with the late designer in flashback. However, the hushed power of Gallienne’s demeanor as he frets and later fusses with his partner’s unruly behavior makes the narration redundant. We understand his conflicted relationship with Saint-Laurent more clearly by watching him watch his partner robe women and react to others disrobing.
As guarded as Saint-Laurent is about his feelings, Lespert’s film also feels a bit reticent to get under the skin of its title character. We spend a couple of scenes in the military hospital where Yves stayed after a numbing experience serving in Algeria. There, he comments on the difficulty of being a gay man in the military and the treatment he received because of being ousted. The wrenching scene, which Niney performs with passion and deep compassion for the man’s wounded soul, is the film’s highlight. If only Yves Saint-Laurent treaded more often into its subject’s scattered psyche and emotionally unnerved temperament, then our understanding would deepen.
Suitably, the film changes its tone and its texture as we move between eras. During the late 1950s, as grey and plaid were a common color choice for anyone’s wardrobe, Lespert’s film is austere and classical, filled with longer takes from a slower camera with gentle piano melodies (courtesy of Ibrahim Maalouf) flowing in the background. As we dash through Saint-Laurent’s romance with Bergé and the later establishment of his fashion house, the pacing quickens, the colors begin to pop and a groovy soundtrack plays. One especially vibrant montage into these swinging days of Saint-Laurent’s life is laid over the Chambers Brothers’ Time Has Come Today, a nifty song selection that oozes speed and sexuality with its psychedelic licks and seductively ticking cowbell.)
Unfortunately, the film lacks a drive in its final third, when Lespert, along with screenwriters Jacques Fieschi and Marie-Pierre Hunter, cannot quite decide where the lust and the lavish lifestyles are going. Meanwhile, the drug-addled demise of the protagonist feels too typical of the biopic genre. Without much momentum or surprise, Yves Saint-Laurent wanders around a bit too much as it searches for an appropriate way to summarize the icon and iconoclast. Some moments even feel a bit crammed in, such as a silly romantic entanglement involving model Victoire (The Hundred-Foot Journey’s Charlotte Le Bon) and a few out-of-context catch-ups with the protagonist’s mother and father.
Although a biopic about such a mystifying subject should be more gauche and revealing, Yves Saint-Laurent is still a colorful and compelling slice into one of the 20th century’s most incomparable stylists, and is definitely worth a watch for those who have any interest in the man and his work.
Yves Saint-Laurent is an elegantly filmed and exceptionally acted biopic that may be too tasteful a drama for such a ravishing figure.