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Non-Review Review: Yves Saint Laurent

Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent feels more like a mood piece than a biography. Beautifully shot, wonderfully acted and sensuously performed, there’s no real sense of structure to Lespert’s account of one of the most influential fashion designers of the past half-century. While the movie trods familiar bio-pic ground, with betrayals and addictions and scandal and love, it works best as a snapshot of its subject in motion. It doesn’t offer any particular insight into the life and times of Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent, instead trying to capture some of the mood of the designer’s life.

Drawing back the curtain...

Drawing back the curtain…

The bulk of Yves Saint Laurent unfolds against the backdrop of a rapidly changing France. The film runs from the early sixties until the mid seventies, as France loses Algiers and student protests threaten civil order. Hippy and trendy avante garde cavern bars evolve into exclusive dance clubs. Laurent himself evolves from a bespectacled twenty-something establishment figure into a bearded wanderer breaking down barriers.

There is a lot of ground to cover in the time afforded, and Lespert is less than disciplined in offering his account of Laurent’s life. There’s a familiar pattern to the film, with Laurent struggling against his manic depression – vacillating between incredible highs and heart-breaking lows. Supporting characters wander into and out of his life, with few staying long enough to make an impression.

Dress to impress...

Dress to impress…

He is repeatedly tempted away down dark paths, driving a wedge between Laurent and long-term partner Pierre Bergé. The two are frequently at odds, passive-aggressively attacking one another and betraying each other; they inevitably reconcile, only for the cycle to repeat itself. There’s a genuine warmth and affection in their relationship, but little stability – the hurdles facing the pair are almost inevitable in a bio-pic like this.

Indeed, more cynical viewers will probably guess the forms their various struggles will take, without any particular knowledge about Laurent’s life and times. To be fair, this is probably an accurate depiction of life and love – things rarely happen with the sort of structure or reason one expects from a good story. There’s an organic quality to how Laurent and Bergé are pushed to the edge and then pulled back together, with the pattern repeating; promises are made and broken, it’s debatable whether true change is possible, and yet their love abides.

On the Yves of greatness...

On the Yves of greatness…

While there’s an endearing sense of life-caught-on-film to all this, it doesn’t make for a dramatically satisfying feature. Lespert’s treatment of his subject is too scatter-shot to be effective, trying to cover too much too quickly. As an account of the life of Yves Saint Laurent, the film is disappointing. It succeeds in capturing a sense of the man himself, but with little acknowledgement of what he accomplished or where he came from (or where he was going).

Instead, Yves Saint Laurent plays almost like a collection of snapshots from the designer’s life, with the goal of capturing the ambient mood of the fashion guru. It’s not so much about specifics as it is about conveying what life was like day-in and day-out. So there’s a sense that everything is heightened. Yves Saint Laurent doesn’t just tell us that Laurent was manic depressive, it shows that he was from almost the movie’s opening scene.

Tailor made...

Tailor made…

The prospect of discussing seating arrangements at his first show almost cause a mental breakdown, despite the fact this is the first time we’ve heard mention of them. The most trivial of moments becomes an excuse for high-tension drama. This isn’t simply a dramatic tool to convey Laurent’s struggle with his depression; other characters get similar moments. A polite interruption from a secretary during a random telephone call becomes cause for a full-on shouting match for Bergé.

There are points where it seems like Yves Saint Laurent is more a checklist than a film, as Lespert tries to hit all the necessary and expected aspects of his subject’s life. So we get the founding of his own brand after Christian Dior fired him over a controversy involving the conflict in Algiers, a sequence that is over almost as quickly as it begins. We get a minute or two devoted to the creation of his iconic piece of sixties fashion, the Mondrian. However, none of these seem to go anywhere or reveal anything insightful – they are there because this is the life of Yves Saint Laurent and they have to be there.

Some neck...

Some neck(lace)…

Part of the problem is the sense that there’s little room for finer details or nuance in Yves Saint Laurent, with Lespert painting absolutely everything larger-than-life. While the lack of a strong central structure – or even a logical progression – hurts the movie as a whole, Yves Saint Laurent is a staggeringly beautiful production. The cinematography is stunning, along with the production design. Ibrahim Maalouf’s soundtrack might be a little overblown in places, it fits the general mood of the film.

The movie is held together by the wonderful central performances of Pierre Niney and Guillaume Gallienne as Laurent and Bergé respectively. Both are credited as members of “la Comédie-Française”, the French National Theatre – an endearing convention that acknowledges their pedigree and talent. The duo work very well at extending their characters into fully-formed human beings, despite a script that is a little light on the details. In particular, Niney does wonderful work as Laurent, portraying a tortured genius with an incredibly vulnerability.

Mirror, mirror...

Mirror, mirror…

Yves Saint Laurent is unsatisfying as a biographical film. It doesn’t dig deep enough into the life and times of its subject, it tries to do too much, it has difficulty distilling Laurent’s life into a single workable story. At the same time, it does have a wonderful atmosphere and manages to perhaps capture a sketch of one of the most influential fashion designers of our time.

2 Responses

  1. I cannot wait to see Bertrand Bonello’s “Saint Laurent” when it comes out October 2014. Not having Pierre Bergé’s approval means that Bonello has the freedom to show a side of Yves Saint Laurent or Pierre Bergé for that matter that Bergé doesn’t want the world to see.The only great thing about Lespert’s movie are Pierre Niney,Guillaume Galienne and the costumes. Bonello’s movie has the 4x César nominee and the 2013 Palme d’Or winner and 2014 BAFTA nominee for Blue is the Warmest Color Léa Seydoux (Benoit Jacquot’s Farewell My Queen,Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible,Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris,Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds,Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel;Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster) and César winners Gaspard Ulliel,Louis Garrel and Jeremie Renier and Bonello’s scriptwriter is Thomas Bidegain who wrote Marion Cotillard’s Rust and Bone which was nominated at the Golden Globes for Best Foreign Movie and for The Prophet by César and BAFTA winner Jacques Audiard .I expect a better script and better acting from everyone.

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