Undressing the high life of the fashion designer, his label, loves and lows, Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent cuts a fine figure.
A Single Man by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Taking its title graphics from the haute couturier’s distinctive logo, Yves Saint Laurent could feel like a marketing film for the renowned fashion house. Its costumes are a fashion show of past collections, from Yves Saint Laurent’s first independent designs to his more daring Mondrian and Libération collections, which appear to have come straight out of the Yves Saint Laurent museum. But thanks to the delicate and tender performances from Pierre Niney and Guillaume Gallienne, both from the Comédie Française as the titles ostentatiously remind us, Yves Saint Laurent is the love story between the fashion designer and his lover and manager Pierre Bergé. Stylish and fluid like a YSL worsted dress, Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent leads us on a glorious journey as the designer falls apart at the seams through nervousness, mental breakdown, adulterous affairs and drugs to his eventual illness and slow fall from fashion.
It’s 1957 and Yves (Pierre Niney) is visiting his parents in Oran, Algeria, on holiday from his job as designer at Dior, but soon after his return to Paris the great fashion designer died propelling the nervous and quiet Yves into the role of head designer. Despite taking refuge in the safe world of sketches and chiffons, the shy couturier is unable to manage the increasing business demands at Dior though. And when he’s fired and conscripted into the French Army, it’s enough to put Yves in hospital suffering from manic depression. But with the support of Pierre (Guillaume Gallienne), Yves decides to open his own maison de couture, taking with him model Victoire (Charlotte Le Bon) and creating a fashionable (and well publicised) storm to court American investment. But as Yves Saint Laurent goes from one brilliant collection to the next, outside of the loving confines of fashion and his common-law lover Pierre, he enters another world of affairs, parties and drugs.
Telling Yves Saint Laurent’s story from both the point of view of the fashion genius and his life-long partner Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent is something of a twin-set. It’s based largely on Bergé’s version of events, with Saint Laurent emerging from a nervous cocoon of spectacle-adjusting and stammering shyness metamorphosing into a skittish lover cruising on the banks of the Seine and ultimately a cocaine-fuelled party animal. Despite Saint-Laurent’s tendency towards manic depression, the course of his life is set when his world collides with Paul’s – it’s Bergé who gives him the support and strength both to start his own fashion house and live in need-to-know openness as a gay man. And with ménages à trois, or is it quatre, with Karl Lagerfeld and his lover Jacques de Bascher, there’s a refreshing lack of Fifties-style handwringing about the film’s treatment of homosexuality, both Yves and Pierre taking it in their well tailored stride. This is fashion after all, darling.
Despite the glittering period design, and the very Fifties glitz and glamour of the dresses and catwalks, it’s the relationship – both delicate and manly – between the two men that makes the film, its success due to the brilliant performances by both Pierre Niney and Guillaume Gallienne – by stages nervous, charming, tender, jealous, desperate and furious. It’s a frustratingly real and very human relationship, and yet somehow Yves remains distanced – Lespert either refusing to indulge in the emotional extravagance of the fashionista’s mental breakdowns or choosing to couch the designer’s lurches from giggly highs to snarling lows behind the evening veil of a lover’s affection. For it’s a pretty familiar story – of a wayward artistic genius and his put-upon lover in the shadows, desperately clinging on to love, despite drugs and infidelity, to the bitter end. And while Yves Saint Laurent works well in the first half, building a meteoric he-who-dares-wins tension and a love story that both resonates and sizzles, Lespert’s film loses its sense of urgency when Yves and Pierre become satellites in each other’s worlds in the second half, their orbits no longer coinciding.
Whether it’s in the modernist Jardin Majorelle in Morocco, an elegant apartment overlooking the Place de l’Étoile, the backstage of fashion houses or the backstairs of night clubs, Yves Saint Laurent is a delicious swagger through Fifties Paris, revealing both the man who brought a supple, flowing lightness into Dior’s temple of rigidity and a breath of elegance into into French fashion, as well as the man behind the man – the thoughtful provider who gives Yves’ family a new Fiat, but also the unprincipled man, who screws Yves’ best friend Victoire but keeps his word. It’s love at its best and worst – fickle and jealous but determined and long-lasting. But like a latter-day lacklustre Yves, only happy in fall and spring when the new collections hit the catwalks, Yves Saint Laurent is a tale of two seasons – two very different men and their two very different lives. Its sharp lines cut into an elegant two-piece. Even if a little old hat.
Yves Saint Laurent is released on 21st March 2014 in the UK