21-27 March, DCA
Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent is one of two 2014 biopics about the famous fashion designer who was born in 1936 and died in 2008. Pierre Niney, as Yves, delivers a performance which movingly captures the shy, mischievous insouciance of the Algerian-born gay artiste whose rise from Christian Dior’s assistant to independent global prince of haute couture came with the guidance of his manager and lover, the industrialist Pierre Bergé. The film has received criticism for being episodic and plodding, but what it lacks in dramatic development it overcomes through the subtle performances of Niney as the modest Yves and Guillaume Gallienne as the protective but loving Pierre, who watches over the increasingly reckless if horn-rimmed manic depressive.
Beginning in the 1950s and working through Yves’s career up to the 1970s (when the designer became infatuated with the dashing Jacques), the film portrays Pierre as the tyrannical but devoted power behind the throne. Unsurprisingly, this is the only of the two films approved by the Saint Laurent estate, in large part because it is narrated through a voice-over from Bergé, whose control of the plot mirrors his attempted control of the rebellious and fragile designer. The film portrays Pierre selflessly nursing his lover back to artistic productivity after Saint Laurent’s suffers a mental breakdown when he is drafted in 1960 and faces some of the same brutal treatment he encountered in the Catholic schools of Oran where he grew up, locked in toilets and beaten for being a fairy (feé).
As some critics have noted, the true stars of this show are the amazing dresses Saint Laurent so lovingly and meticulously designed in his self-effacing manner. Lespert gives us many shots of the aesthete at his desk, but the most surprising and revelatory comes during the depiction of the designer’s breakthrough in 1965 with the Mondrian design dresses, which emerged after a long stretch of creative stymie. After Yves searches through his Mondrian book to find the famous colored squares, he madly begins to pencil his sketch in red, blue, and yellow, as the nondiegetic Chamber Brothers’ “Time Has Come” incongruously but aptly plays louder and louder, ushering in the transformative period of the Sixties. Yves’s ability to rise to the occasion of the cultural revolution led to a stardom that sent his name across the headlines of every major design magazine in the world. The result was unimagined success and the ensuing excesses in his villa in Marrakech—cocaine and free love– accompanied Saint Laurent’s descent into the den of iniquity. There is something, predictably from Bergé’s bourgeoisie perspective, of the morality tale in this film, but its lavish attention to the presentation of the clothes sufficiently tempers the disapproving impulse that underlies the film’s message.
That lavishness finds its most glorious moment in the final montage/fashion show/Yves and Pierre moment that arrives with the Moroccan-influenced show Yves put on in the 1970s. We find a now reclusive and ill Yves, chain smoking, head down, and classically pushing his lenses into his abashed face (a gesture of pure genius by Niney). The director handles this scene with a moving facility as, to a soundtrack from Tosca, the models head down the runway, in their sable Cossack headgear, an uncanny attention to the colors of the models’ scarfs richly set against the red and amber camera light. Lespert intermixes shots of the timid designer peeking through the curtain into the distorted white light behind the models as he recalls,in flashback, his drawings pinned against his studio wall. The montage—replete with operatic drama, fluent editing, and a cinematography that moves from the close-ups of models to shots of Bergé watching his unstable charge—create a visual splendor that rivals the almost cinematic sensibility of Laurent’s lifelong devotion to the art of garments, an art lost on the prȇt a porter generics of our Gap age.
Yves Saint Laurent will leave many with a new respect for the success and aesthetic depth of dress. Clothes have indeed made this man. They have made this compelling film as well.