By NATHAN LERNER
“Yves Saint Laurent” recounts the life of one of the 20th century’s most influential fashion gurus. The designer’s philosophy is summed up by his quote, “Fashion dies, but style remains.”
The film starts with an awkward framing device. It’s 2008 and Saint Laurent has just died. We are introduced to Pierre Bergé (Guillaume Gallienne), the designer’s former paramour, who remained his business partner long after their romantic relationship cooled. Bergé is liquidating Saint Laurent’s extensive art collection. Much of the balance of the film dwells on their shifting relationship.
After this prologue, the film takes us back to 1957. Saint Laurent (Pierre Niney) is relaxing at his family’s upscale Mediterranean villa in Oran, Algeria. He is soon to become the youngest head designer in the illustrious history of the House of Dior.
When Saint Laurent dodges the draft for the Algerian War, his fledgling career is threatened. The film fails to make clear whether Saint Laurent’s aversion to military service in his native country arose from genuine geopolitical reservations or a self-indulgent sense of entitlement. Upon conscription, the emotionally frail Saint Laurent is bullied by fellow soldiers. He soon suffers a nervous breakdown.
Following Saint Laurent’s return to civilian life, he is dismissed from the House of Dior. Litigation for breach of contract ensues. In the David versus Goliath legal battle, Saint Laurent surprisingly prevails. The judgment of £48,000 enables Saint Lauren and Bergé to start their own fashion empire.
In the era between 1965 to 1976, Saint Laurent reached the peak of his professional career. However, as the film depicts, Saint Laurent was simultaneously a victim of his inner demons. He succumbed to a sexually promiscuous and drug-addled modus vivendi.
There is a well-established movie convention in which actors portray historical personages, who are far less attractive than they are. This film eschews the convention. Instead, it casts Pierre Niney, whose pronounced proboscis, evokes Saint Laurent. The actor is intent on capturing the designer’s nervous tics. As presented here, Saint Laurent was an amalgam of arrogance and insecurity. The incongruity is inadequately explicated.
Based on the book by Laurence Benaim, the screenplay is quite weak. It delineates a series of events, but is devoid of any narrative trajectory. The screenwriters frame the film around the relationship between Saint Laurent and Bergé. Given this decision, it is odd that their relationship is so poorly illuminated. Their initial encounter and subsequent interactions fail to capture any chemistry between them. Even after Saint Laurent and Bergé break up, some thirty years before the designer’s death, the latter remains the film’s narrator. This constitutes an ill-considered technique.
Similarly, Saint Laurent’s ambivalent relationship with his family remains unclear. Nor are Saint Laurent’s litany of sexual escapades, cocaine use, and bouts of depression given an adequate context. The film fails to illuminate why Saint Laurent was considered such a fashion genius or why he was such a tortured soul.
Of course, the film does contain some striking haute couture. Fashionistas will rejoice in the costumes by Madeline Fontaine. However, these outfits and depictions of Saint Laurent doodling on a sketch pad are poor substitutes for an exploration of his putative genius. The film bemoans the fact that fashion is dismissed as a lesser art. However, it provides no compelling argument why it is entitled to be taken more seriously.
Coincidentally, later this year, there will be another biopic, “Saint Laurent” about the same subject matter. The film competed for the Palme D’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Directed and co-written by Bertrand Bonello, the film stars the traditionally handsome Gaspard Ulliel in the lead and Jérémie Renier as Bergé. It is scheduled for a fall theatrical release.
One can only hope that this upcoming biopic will prove more engaging than the inert, unfocused “Yves Saint Laurent.”
** R (for sexual content and drug use) 106 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.