Yves Saint Laurent absolutely proves every prejudice you might hold about French fashion-types: that they’re all snobbish, heartless, soulless assholes. And what is the point of making a biopic if you’re just going to play up to stale stereotypes? When it did dawn on me that this film was going to be entirely void of meaningful content I thought, well, at least the outfits will be beautiful, right? Until I had a revelation about 1/3 of the way in that I actually think Yves Saint Laurent’s designs are kind of fugly. That was pretty much my undoing, as my inner monologue drifted away from engaging in the movie in front of me and more towards humming the Knight Rider theme.
Yves Saint Laurent is one of those movies you can feel was just flung on a director’s lap, here actor-turned-director Jalil Lespert, by a studio looking to make a quick buck off a famous name. It’s especially relevant in the light of its production history, battling with a rival feature, the Léa Seydoux-starring Saint Laurent. Lespert’s movie has been given full support from Saint Laurent’s life-long partner Pierre Bergé, who in turned damned its rival and banned it from using any of Laurent’s creations. It really shows: while I fully understand Bergé’s desire to protect the memory of his great love, the movie really suffers as a stale and overly reverential picture of tortured genius.
The film is a point-by-point plod through every biopic cliché. Watch as Laurent is portrayed as the first person to ever think of tying a bow around a woman’s waist as everyone stands in mute shock at such a daring move! Watch as he is corrupted by the dark underbelly of drug addiction and becomes increasingly erratic! Watch as his love stands by him through thick and thin, because everybody loves a big f-ing mess!
Beyond even this, Yves Saint Laurent suffers from some bizarre creative decisions, pushing it down beyond typical biopic fare. Firstly, it seems entirely unable to decide what to do with Laurent’s sexuality. While it would have been admirable to approach the story of a gay figure without falling prey to the overblown Hollywood image of the tortured homosexual, it seems clear that Laurent did struggle with his identity early on in his life, at one point half-jokingly asking his girlfriend to marry him in an attempt to distract from the lingering gazes of another man. This film never seems to fully engage either path: there’s plenty of early scenes of men meaningfully stroking his face while he looks super awkward, suggesting he’s affected by the culture of the time’s homophobic attitudes, but it’s all entirely forgotten once Bergé enters the scene, and Laurent’s reservations are explained away in a quick and convenient narration.
In fact, so much of what would be this film’s most interesting moments are passed over in narration. Which seems like a totally crazy thing to do. While there’s mention of Laurent’s unwillingness to be conscripted into the French army, it entirely passes over his breakdown cause by hazing from his fellow soldiers and the abusive treatment he received in hospital, where he was forced to undergo electroshock therapy and heavy sedation. This was one of the most crucial points in Laurent’s personal life, as his experiences in the army and his hospital stay were what the designer himself blamed for his later mental health issues and drug addictions.
The problem of omitting these scenes is that it doesn’t give Laurent’s traditional drug addiction character arch any substance. One second he’s a meek momma’s boy and, without warning, the film suddenly transforms him into a man who spends half his time screaming at people and half his time making out with strangers. Narration also robs us of the opportunity to see Laurent finally have his solo collection funded or Bergé confronting one of Laurent’s flings, something which undoubtedly would have been a screaming match worth watching. Every opportunity for real drama and excitement is passed over in favour of watching the beautiful people be beautiful as we skip through broadly painted pastiches of decades past. Guys. There is literally a 60s hippie-drug montage. For realsies.
I do have to give some credit due to the performances here. Pierre Niney truthfully searches for the inner fragility of Saint Laurent, a man who seems deeply empathetic with world around him. Given more to chew on he could have expanded this into a touching exploration of ruthless corruption of a vulnerable soul by the world around him. Guillaume Gallienne also makes for a fantastically weary Pierre Bergé, an eyebrow constantly cocked at his partner’s immature antics.
In the end, I’d be interested to see Yves Saint Laurent‘s cinematic rival when its released. Bergé’s condemnation may actually hint to a more passionate and truthful portrait of the man, one that doesn’t whitewash his flaws and struggles as a simple symptom of creative genius. Or maybe it’ll suck too. Who knows anymore.
Stars: Pierre Niney, Guillaume Gallienne, Charlotte Le Bon
Runtime: 106 min