Like volcanoes, killer meteors, and Truman Capote before him, legendary French designer Yves Saint Laurent is the subject of two simultaneous movies; the first to hit U.S. theaters is an eponymous biopic, and of the two, it’s the one that has the official approval of the YSL estate. (The other movie, “Saint Laurent,” premiered at Cannes and is scheduled to open Stateside before the end of the year.)
The problem with “Yves Saint Laurent” isn’t that it’s a whitewash; sex, drugs, and mental illness are on full display here. What makes this film go astray are the problems that plague so many screen biographies: too much narration, too much telling and not enough showing, and presenting an artist’s accomplishments in lieu of exploring his perspective.
Narrated by Saint Laurent’s longtime lover and business partner Pierre Bergé (played here by Guillaume Gallienne), the film opens with the auction of the couple’s legendary art collection before flashing back to the 1950s, where a young Yves (Pierre Niney) sketches beautiful gowns in his parents’ house in Algeria.
Before you can say “The New Look,” young Saint Laurent is whisked off to Paris to work for Christian Dior, eventually becoming that fashion house’s creative director after Dior’s death. (How someone so young gained such a prestigious foothold in haute couture is something the film apparently assumes we already know.)
He debuts with a line that’s well received but unexceptional. When the designer gets drafted into the French army (to eventually go fight in Algeria), he suffers a mental breakdown and is diagnosed as manic-depressive.
After Dior fires Saint Laurent, Bergé sues the company for contract violation and uses the money to help YSL start his own fashion house. Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, friendships and love affairs are launched and ended, drugs are consumed, gowns are created, and tantrums are thrown, but throughout we see Bergé shielding the fragile Saint Laurent from the world so that the artist can create.
That’s all well and good, and the Saint Laurent designs we see modeled throughout the film are certainly testament to his genius. But “Yves Saint Laurent” doesn’t give us enough of anything: If you want to know more about the inspiration behind his designs, all you get is a moment of him pulling out a book on Mondrian before inventing the color-blocked dress. If you want to know more about his relationship with Bergé, we’re told over and over that they need each other but we never get a sense of what, exactly, they found in each other.
We never even see them jointly buying any of the artwork that’s being boxed up at the beginning of the movie, so that metaphor, so elaborately introduced early on, ultimately goes nowhere.
That’s not the fault of Niney (who looks exactly like Saint Laurent, down to the distinctive profile) or Gallienne, who have real screen chemistry and effectively age decades over the course of the movie. (Clint Eastwood might think about signing up makeup artist Odile Fourquin and her team after the embarrassing geriatric putty stuck onto the casts of “Jersey Boys” and “J. Edgar.”)
“Yves Saint Laurent” is, at least, an unapologetically gay love story; Saint Laurent and Bergé are portrayed as physically affectionate emotionally intertwined, neither of which should be taken for granted in mainstream movies these days.
Their relationship remains frustratingly vague, which is, unfortunately, par for the course here: We meet YSL muses like Loulou de la Falaise (Laura Smet) and Betty Catroux (Marie de Villepin) — Catherine Deneuve is strangely absent — but never find out how or why they influenced him. Frenemy Karl Lagerfeld (Nikolai Kinski) occasionally drifts through, but never long enough to have much dialogue or impact.
Even the ending seems arbitrary, coming on the heels of a glamorous 1976 fashion show that the movie treats only marginally differently than the previous ones. It’s never presented as a unique triumph or a highlight or even a last gasp; it’s just a stopping point in the story of a life that would last for three more decades.
“Yves Saint Laurent” effectively makes the case for fashion as an art form, but the artist himself remains elusive and unknowable. Here’s hoping the next movie tells us more about the man behind the mannequin.