Very few figures in fashion have embodied the archetype of the talented and tortured artist like Yves Saint Laurent. A fragile soul with an uncanny aptitude for dressing women, he began his career under the wing of Christian Dior, succeeding him after the eminent designer’s passing, then going on to revolutionize Western dress under his own name. His unabridged life story is cinematic without much addition, and director Jalil Lespert’s eponymous biopic starring Pierre Niney does everything to make that apparent.
The first creation of Laurent’s we see in the film is fitting: a black panné velvet gown he cinches with a white silk sash was the first he solely designed as Dior’s assistant, made famous in Richard Avedon’s Dovima with Elephants. Niney’s quick and careful movements when adding the finishing touches in front of Dior himself set up his character as submissive yet talented, focused on his art above all else.
We continue to follow the life of YSL in a typical fashion, following his escalation in the industry, his burgeoning romance and business relationship with Pierre Bergé (played solidly here by Guillaume Gallienne), and his kinship with model and muse Victoire Doutreleau (Charlotte Le Bon). Despite the routine plot, Lespert stitches together beautiful, meticulous shots reminiscent of an editorial into scenes as expertly crafted as one of Saint Laurent’s gowns. The visuals and costumes work to elevate an otherwise standard story.
Niney, well-cast as the tortured artist, holds his slight frame and angular face in a quietly expressive presence throughout the movie. He transforms Saint Laurent’s insular trepidation into an out-of-control hedonism while maintaining the consistency of his character. This change comes at a pivotal point in the film when, searching for inspiration to solidify his solo career, he comes across Piet Mondrian’s geometric paintings in a dusty tome, signaling the birth of one of Saint Laurent’s most iconic works.
The transition from the conservative beauty of Dior retreads to his more radical experimentation with revolutionary silhouettes, colors and fabrics serves as a good device in the film to signify his transformation from meek artist to party boy. But while nightlife, drugs, and sex cloud Saint Laurent, we’re ultimately set up as an audience to forgive his vices in a redemptive runway show that ends the film. No matter what Saint Laurent does, we’re instructed to sympathize with the archetype of a tortured artist.
Yves Saint Laurent will soon be joined in the US by another film mapping the life of the young designer, simply titled Saint Laurent, written and directed by Bertrand Bonello. One of the biggest contrasts so far between the two is Bonello’s film does not have the blessing of Pierre Bergé, and one can only assume the extremely sympathetic characterization and canonization Lespert’s reflected may not be replicated. Yves Saint Laurent, while magnificent in cinematography and dutiful in story, probably could have pushed itself further to create a more dynamic telling of the wunderkind’s life and work.
Yves Saint Laurent is currently playing at Film Forum (209 W. Houston Street, West Village, Manhattan).