Yves Saint Laurent was catapulted to fame at the age of 21 when he was chosen to head up the House of Dior after the death of its namesake. Having then established his own fashion house, he led the charge for empowering women through their wardrobes, and sparked trends that have drip-fed through to modern fashion.
In the film, the shy young designer meets Pierre Bergé (Guillaume Gallienne) at his first catwalk show, a man who becomes his lover, business partner and emotional anchor throughout much of his life. Rather than present a visual CV of the YSL fashion house, this biopic tells their story, from the point of view of Bergé. It’s interesting to note that the real Bergé has personally approved this film – one of two YSL features being released in quick succession.
Pierre Niney, who bears a convincing resemblance to Saint Laurent, plays the man with poise. Niney dons the mantle of a fragile, creative genius whom everyone wants to wrap up and protect from the world. The film repeatedly leans on this theme of Saint Laurent’s vulnerability, embodied in the love shown by Bergé, who tries to save the naïve soul from himself during the burgeoning excesses of fame. As a result, Saint Laurent comes across as spoilt and weak, and during the throws of an argument, the threat of conscription, or the onset of mental illness, it’s hard to empathise with the character or connect with the performance.
The film’s colourful backdrops include Paris and Morocco (a sanctuary of sorts for Saint Laurent and Bergé), and the filmmakers had the luxury of access to original YSL couture. This all adds up to lush visuals and an authenticity which transports you from intimate catwalk shows and fittings, to jazz-filled Parisian bars, to the strobe-lit nightclubs of the 70s.
Sadly, however, the film is very much style over substance and the detailed art direction and camerawork don’t make up for what’s lacking in script and plot. As a viewer, you’re taken by the hand and shown a magnificent world of fashion…but then you’re left in the corner with an empty glass whilst your host is off snorting coke with people far prettier than you. The film skips through the decades as we witness scenes of Saint Laurent with one group of friends doing lots of drugs and stealing someone’s boyfriend, to him with another group of friends doing lots of drugs then stealing someone else’s boyfriend; it’s essentially a filmic version of the Penrose steps.
Jalil Lespert clearly wanted to make a film about how a creative mind, when buoyed by the best friendships and by love, can achieve anything, against the odds. Yet somewhere along the way he appears to have been swept away in aesthetics, and in showing characters whom, whilst flawed, aren’t fully realised or tangible. But then, perhaps this is actually a true representation of the untouchable and lacquered nature of fame?