Actor turned director Jalil Lespert’s latest feature, Yves Saint Laurent (2014), sets about the ambitious task of condensing into an 106-minute film the life and work of one of fashion’s most celebrated icons. The result is a stylish melodrama, enriched by touching performances from Comédie-Française actors Pierre Niney and Gaullaume Gallienne. Opening in Oran, French Algeria, in 1957, we meet the young Yves (Niney) residing at his parents’ villa before he has to return to Paris. From the opening scene, we quickly understand the commitment that Niney brings to the role, embodying the fragility and anxiety that plagued Saint Laurent throughout his rich life.
We then relocate to Paris, where the young fashion prodigy finds himself inheriting the House of Dior following the designer’s death. From here on out the story follows two paths. Firstly, the conventional, lacklustre biopic that focuses upon the meteoric ascent of Saint Laurent through the world of fashion, including how he revolutionised haute couture. This includes navigating his greatest collections down the decades, and his tempestuous relationships with his muses: Betty Catroux (Marie de Villepin); sixties French icon Loulou de la Falaise (Laura Smet); and classical beauty Victoire Doutreleau (Charlotte Le Bon). Each offered something unique to Saint Laurent, be it inspiration or, as was often the case, drugs.
Whilst YSL’s muses were a constant presence, none came close to the passion he felt for his business partner and lover, Pierre Bergé (Gallienne). It is here, in the portrayal of their relationship, wracked with jealousy, ferocious passion and love that the film’s greatest strengths lay. Gallienne provides a mature tenderness as the foil to Yves’ petulant tantrums. Though many of these moments are plagued with melodrama, they lift the film away from its plodding chronological structure, including some enjoyable sojourns to Marrakesh where the pair retreat to after one of Yves’ many breakdowns. The now 83-year-old Bergé has previously given his blessing to Lespert’s biopic, and whilst his involvement could be seen as more a hindrance than a help, his knowledge clearly shines through.
Of course, like most biopics that concerns great artistic talents we get many clichéd scenes portraying the life of the ‘troubled genius’. One moment Saint Laurent will be hurling abuse, snorting cocaine in a sweaty, trashy Parisian gay bar, only in the next scene to be furiously sketching out designs inspired by the paintings of Mondrian. Biopics are often all too conventional and reliant on audiences interests in the subject matter. Many directors appear happy to sit within the margins of the genre, unsure of the rules, thus unable to break them. With Yves Saint Laurent, Lespert has played it safe but stylish, and pulls it off thanks to some canny casting choices and a refreshing focus on mainstream appeal.