Style over substance: The Yves Saint Laurent biopic doesn’t quite measure up

The Independent’s fashion editor finds himself disappointed

A biopic is an ugly portmanteau, first of all. It’s also possibly the trickiest of films to get right, especially when the subject is contemporary. It allows little room for interpretation, and no room for error. Yves Saint Laurent may have died in 2008, but the amount of material documenting his life and work is monumental.

Jalil Lespert, director of this year’s first film bearing the Saint Laurent moniker (released tomorrow – a second, starring Gaspard Ulliel, is set for Cannes), confides that he “probably read and saw everything even remotely related to Yves Saint Laurent. I had to do my homework.” Less homework, more life’s work:  googling “Yves Saint Laurent” returns more than 30 million hits. The name “Marilyn Monroe” surrenders less than half that.

Yves Saint Laurent the film is focussed on Yves Saint Laurent the man primarily, and Yves Saint Laurent the fashion house a close second. The stand-in for the former is Pierre Niney, a fair doppelgänger except for a slightly too Depardieu-ean nose; there is no stand-in for the latter. Lespert and costume designer Madeline Fontaine collaborated with the archives of the couture house to feature key pieces of Saint Laurent history – the 1965 Mondrian dresses, the lurid fur chubbies and lace-backed dresses from the 1971 Vichy Chic collection controversially inspired by French dress during the Occupation, and his triumphal 1976 Ballets Russes haute couture. The ability for a film to feature these is, in fashion terms, akin to shooting in Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber at Versailles. In short: exceptional.

Exceptional is the perfect description for Yves Saint Laurent’s career, of course. The swathe of history it covers spans roughly 20 years, from Saint Laurent’s days as the dauphin of Dior in 1956, to that Ballets Russes collection, designed in a frenzy of creativity after the latest in a series of nervous breakdowns. “Yves,” his business and personal partner Pierre Berge once stated, “was born with a nervous breakdown.”

Berge – played by Guillaume Gallienne – is the narrator for Lespert. He’s also the head of the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent. Considering the fact that a narrator and key character hold the literal keys to your film’s success (namely: access to those all-important archives and costume options), can the veracity of said portrayal be entirely upheld? Berge’s portrait is undeniably sympathetic. Not hagiographic, but polished, glossy.

That’s not to claim that Gallienne doesn’t look the part – he’s short and stocky, just like Berge. In fact, as an ensemble exercise in lookalike casting, Yves Saint Laurent is possibly unparalleled. There’s a double-take in every scene: Jean Cocteau and Andy Warhol hover on the fringes, exact replicas even as bit-parts. Marie de Villepin as Betty Catroux and Nikolai Kinski as a young Karl Lagerfeld are perfectly cast.

Karl Lagerfeld? Mais oui. In the Fifties and Sixties, Lagerfeld and Saint Laurent were friends and frequently rivals. Yves Saint Laurent, in part, charts a love affair between Saint Laurent and Lagerfeld’s assumed partner Jacques de Bascher (played, again, with eerie accuracy by Xavier Lafitte). If you’ve read Alicia Drake’s excellent book The Beautiful Fall, you’ll know that and recognise the scenes and players.

If you haven’t read that tome, however, you may be a little lost. Which is part of my issue with this film. It seems to rely on viewers having a knowledge of not only the back-catalogue of Saint Laurent’s greatest hits, but a knowledge of the ins and outs of his personal life: his tortured creative process, his spiral into alcohol and drug addiction in the late Sixties, his place at the centre of the hedonistic Parisian nightlife of the Seventies. The iconography of  Saint Laurent’s fashion is part of pop culture. But is his personal mythology so widely  known? At least to the degree that Lespart demands? He had to do his homework to make Yves Saint Laurent: to a viewer who hasn’t done theirs, I suspect that this film could be a discombobulating experience.

Nevertheless, it’s also mildly unsatisfying for disciples of Saint Yves. Yves Saint Laurent was a designer who once re-shot an entire multi-million dollar perfume commercial because the pull of a zipper was visible, for a second, as a model twirled around. It’s difficult to justify a film that takes such licence with his clothing, seeming to run his two 1962 collections into a single, jarring whole, and ignoring his 1960 Beat collection for Dior entirely. Again, to the uninitiated, that seems like a minor infraction, but that collection – the first time clothes from the street influenced high fashion – was a landmark. It was also a key reason that Marcel Boussac, head of Dior, allowed young Yves to be drafted into the armed forces, beginning that lifelong spiral into drug and alcohol abuse. As with many moments in this film, it is touched on, but not explored.

Apologies for the potted history of Saint Laurent lore. However, this film feels caught between two aims – a biography of Saint Laurent the man, and charting the key moments of Saint Laurent the fashion designer. Despite its physical beauty, and poignant moments, it ultimately does neither justice.

‘Yves Saint Laurent’ opens tomorrow

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