There's a remote feeling to Jalil Lespert's bio-pic of Yves Saint Laurent, the French fashion designer who died in 2008, that suits the world the man apparently lived in -- the louche luxury of what used to be called the "jet set." While at no point should we imagine that we actually learn much about "the genius" at the center of the story, it might be enough to vicariously experience the furious flutter of the beautiful exotics who populate the ateliers and nightclubs in which he dwelt. Yves Saint Laurent does a wonderful job of conjuring up a fever dream of the version of the '60s and '70s experienced by the beautiful and damned.
As for the man who became the logo, we get a sketchy portrait of a creature too sensitive to handle the mundane details of daily life. Saint Laurent (played here by Pierre Niney) was freed from any adult responsibility by his lover, the industrialist and art patron Pierre Berge (Guillaume Gallienne), who took over all practical aspects of the designer's life in the early 1960s.
Yves Saint Laurent
86 Cast: Pierre Niney, Guillaume Gallienne, Charlotte Le Bon, Laura Smet, Nikolai Kinski
Director: Jalil Lespert
Rating: R, for sexual content and drug use
Running time: 106 minutes
In French with English subtitles
Structured similarly to the 2010 documentary L'amour fou, Lespert's film begins after Saint Laurent's death, with an aged Berge preparing to auction off most of the art the couple acquired during their years together -- a sale that would ultimately net more than $484 million -- and reminiscing about his life with the artist. While voice-over is used sparingly, the story that unfolds is decidedly Berge's version, so much that I wondered whether he collaborated with the writers. (If he did, the fact is not reflected in the film's credits.)
We flash back to 1958, with 21-year-old Saint Laurent -- then Christian Dior's top assistant -- visiting his family in Oran in troubled Algeria. Painfully introverted, the ascetic Saint Laurent is driven to draw and drape, but is useless in other situations. Back in Paris after Dior's death, he becomes the house's head designer, with the more pragmatic duties delegated to other members of the staff.
Saint Laurent and Berge connect erotically after a dinner meeting arranged so Saint Laurent could meet his favorite painter, Bernard Buffet, who was then Berge's lover. (Buffet's 1958 portrait of the designer figures prominently in the film.) Soon Berge installs Saint Laurent in his opulent apartment.
In 1960, after a disastrous collection and presumably some behind-the-scenes political manipulation by Dior head Marcel Boussac, Saint Laurent is conscripted into the French Army to fight in Algeria. This leads, in short order, to a nervous breakdown, Saint Laurent's firing by Boussac, a stay in a military psychiatric hospital (where Saint Laurent undergoes off-camera electroshock therapy) and finally Berge's pledge to take over all aspects of his lover's life except his design work. They sue Boussac and the house of Dior for breach of contract, and with the proceeds from the lawsuit (and an infusion of cash from an "Atlanta billionaire" -- an unnamed J. Mack Robinson) are able to start their fashion house, Yves Saint Laurent YSL.
Then the '60s and '70s ensue. Hairstyles and fashions proliferate, and the increasingly hedonistic and self-medicating Saint Laurent is caught up in the turbulent times. Stressed out by having to produce four collections a year, Saint Laurent retreats periodically to Marrakesh, where he hangs out with notables such as Karl Lagerfeld and Andy Warhol. Through it all, Berge remains a steadfast presence, the long-suffering baby sitter to an increasingly enfant terrible.
That said, we don't really get much of a sense of the interior life of Saint Laurent, although Niney projects an appropriately gleaming facade. He reminds me a little of the character actor Crispin Glover, albeit with the rough edges sanded down. Like the models he works with, he's a blank screen onto which others project their desires. He's more convincing as an obscure object of desire than as a creative dynamo, though since the story is being told from Berge's perspective that's perhaps appropriate.
As Berge, Gallienne is a magnet for our empathy, the put-upon spouse who sublimates himself for the sake of his partner's obsessions. While the film doesn't make this quite clear, Saint Laurent and Berge "divorced" in 1976, but he continued to handle Saint Laurent's business affairs for the rest of the designer's life, and even afterward. But Yves Saint Laurent doesn't really cohere as a love story -- or even as the story of a l'amour fou.
It's best received as an idealized portrait of a time, and of the strange characters that time created. It looks gorgeous, like a feature-length fashion ad -- it shows us an impossible world, beyond our aspirations.
Some place where we do not belong; where no one really does.
MovieStyle on 09/05/2014