Not counting documentaries, the number of really good movies made about the fashion world can be counted on one, maybe two hands. There’s Stanley Donen’s exquisite Funny Face, contemporary classic The Devil Wears Prada, Robert Altman’s satiric Prêt-à-Porter (memorable for its climactic nude runway parade).
Of these, only one that I can think of, 2009’s Coco Before Chanel, is a biopic, a genre that’s hard enough to pull off when the subject is Nelson Mandela or Lawrence of Arabia, much less an atelier-bound artist whose genius is expressed over a sketchpad. But Coco did a reasonably good job of illuminating the early life of the woman who became immortal for her little black dresses.
Unfortunately, Jalil Lespert’s new French-language mini-epic about the greatest clothing designer of the postwar era, Yves Saint Laurent, won’t be expanding the fashion-film A-list. Despite being sumptuously shot and competently assembled, it provides no real insight into the tortured mind of its subject or the creative process in general. It is as shallow, alas, as a petulant supermodel, as memorable in the long run as last season’s second-tier collections.
C’est dommage, because the movie, which is out in limited release on Friday, starts out strongly and contains some wonderful moments. Its greatest asset is the performance of lead actor Pierre Niney, the 25-year-old Comédie-Française trouper (he is currently the youngest member of the venerable French theatre company), in the title role. A dead ringer for the late designer, Niney manages to avoid parody, conveying a fully realized artist both confident in his abilities and crippled by his anxieties.
Indeed, Niney’s depiction of the famously neurotic couturier is almost too real; his anxiety radiates off the screen. Lespert, who co-wrote the script with Jacques Fieschi, Jérémie Guez and Marie-Pierre Huster, subtly and convincingly suggests that the cause of Saint Laurent’s lifelong unease might have been rooted in the turmoil of his birthplace, colonial Algeria. A mama’s boy, Saint Laurent is living and working in Paris while the anti-French insurgency rages in his homeland, where his family lives. While they’re far removed from the fighting and will eventually flee to France, their safety is a source of constant worry for the budding designer, who is eventually hired by the House of Dior. The pressures on him only mount when, at 21, he is appointed head couturier at the prestigious fashion house after Christian Dior, Saint Laurent’s mentor, dies of a heart attack in 1957. The appointment is a turning point both professionally and personally, the source of Saint Laurent’s ascension and a cause of major stress.
So far, so good, narratively speaking. In the first half of the movie, Lespert displays a light and sophisticated touch that illustrates more than trumpets. The Algerian scenes effectively convey the dreamy, privileged world that nurtured the coddled young Saint Laurent (an especially nice shot that is just seconds long, sees him smiling shyly at an Algerian worker in his garden, suggesting homosexual feelings he doesn’t yet know he has). The early years in Paris are equally well handled: His inherent design talent is suggested in a single set piece (in the presence of Dior, young Saint Laurent rips apart a piece of white fabric to adorn a simple black gown, giving it instant panache), while the great loves of his life – a platonic attachment to model Victoire Doutreleau (played by Canadian actress Charlotte Le Bon, also in this year’s The Hundred-Foot Journey) and his lifelong relationship with Pierre Bergé (Guillaume Gallienne) – are charmingly established.
After this, though, things hit the skids, both historically and cinematically. Doutreleau, a dynamic presence in both Saint Laurent’s life and the film, is summarily dismissed after a perceived betrayal. And Bergé, who meets so cutely with YSL in the movie and went on in real life to manage both his life and his fashion empire, is reduced to the role of scold, scourge and martyr, the straight man to YSL’s increasingly debauched clown. Of course, Bergé could very well have been all of these things; the now 83-year-old has publicly endorsed this film, one of two YSL biopics this year. Lespert, though, doesn’t do him or his reputation any favours by saddling the character, ably performed by Gallienne, with little to do beyond bailing Saint Laurent out of jail (YSL even throws a vase at him in one of many soap-operatic episodes) and a pretentious voice-over that grinds the movie to a halt whenever it’s used. (Sample narration: “The Mondrian collection was pure genius.” Yeah, we know. “Death must be like this – lack of inspiration.” Okay.)
That voice-over is just one example of the laziness that the movie succumbs to. In the clichéd fashion of substandard movie biographies, great personages (Carmel Snow, a bitchy Karl Lagerfeld, muses Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Catroux) parade across the screen to little real effect, moviedom’s version of name-dropping. (In one uninspired bit of dialogue, Bergé tells a minion at a fashion show: “Don’t put Elizabeth Arden near Helena Rubinstein. Enemies.”)
Worse, the impetus behind the creations that made Saint Laurent not just a great designer but a social visionary (the androgynous tuxedo that blurred gender roles, the pantsuits that coincided with the feminist movement) is never explained or even touched on. (While creating those famous Mondrian-inspired dresses, Niney is shown sketching bands of bright colour, then consulting a book on Piet Mondrian. But what made him think of the artist in the first place? It isn’t addressed.)
The air of climax that Lespert ultimately lends to the film’s final fashion show – YSL’s legendary Russian collection, portrayed in the movie as his creative apex and a vindication of Bergé’s saint-like support of him – fails to stir or resonate, despite its beauty.
Altman’s nude parade revealed more.