Yet another biopic that feels as though it were made by an accountant, Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent epitomizes the mediocrity of a genre that often aspires to secondhand storytelling instead of first-rate art. Arriving less than four years after Pierre Thoretton’s documentary L’Amour Fou covered the same ground in far more compelling fashion, Lespert’s staid dramatization of the life and loves of Yves Saint Laurent would rather ride the iconoclastic designer’s coattails than incorporate them into an interesting ensemble.
Are biopics bad because most of them are made about subjects whose lives conformed to the most standard rise and fall narrative? Or are they bad, because they cookie-cut said lives into fitting the model? Perhaps the most damning thing that can be said about Yves Saint Laurent is how convincingly it argues the latter, suggesting the better movie that could have been made from its subject’s experiences.
Geared toward those who have an interest in fashion but mindful of those who don’t, Yves Saint Laurent begins strong, engagingly establishing its subject as a curious person thrust into fascinating circumstances. Working from a script he helped adapt from a Laurence Benäim biography, Lespert introduces the young Saint Laurent as a timid boy cloistered away in the top floor of his parents’ Algerian home. With war on the horizon, the future fashion legend relocates to Paris, where his prodigious talent is recognized by the one and only Christian Dior. Dior decides to retire shortly thereafter, and on a hot August day in the summer of 1957, a 21-year-old Saint Laurent (Pierre Niney) is made the head designer of the world’s largest fashion house.
It’s all champagne and catwalks for the overnight celebrity—who begins a relationship with industrialist Pierre Bergé (Guillaume Gallienne), his business partner and lifelong love—but the stress of Saint Laurent’s job soon triggers his dormant manic-depression, heralding a tumultuous career of dizzying success and bitter breakdowns.
If there’s one thing that Yves Saint Laurent makes perfectly clear, it’s that haute couture depends on finding the right model for the dress, and not the right dress for the model. While the eponymous designer is remembered as an eventual champion of ready-to-wear fashion, Lespert recounts his legacy with ready-to-wear filmmaking, sewing a story onto a life that it doesn’t fit and can’t contain. It’s a shame that Thomas Hardmeier’s gorgeous cinematography only compounds the identity crisis; the film is shot in a lush style that serves its Oscar chances more than it does its subject. (No such complaints about the loose piano score from Lebanese jazz prodigy Ibrahim Maalouf, who graces the material with a delicate wistfulness.)
Perhaps empowered by the dynamism of Niney’s lead performance and the uniform brilliance of its casting, Yves Saint Laurent insists on chronicling several decades of activity, the years spread so thin across the film’s 105-minute running time that few of them remain memorable. Niney’s ticking time-bomb performance consistently exposes the deficiencies of the script. A Comédie-Française alum best known for fluffier fare like It Boy and Romantics Anonymous, the young actor resurrects Saint Laurent as a shy and stringy thing, fragile in demeanor but fierce in talent. His anxiously affected performance hints toward an inner torment that Lespert is only half-interested in exploring. The director flounders between the man’s personal and professional lives, approaching their obvious inextricability as an obstacle instead of an opportunity.
The movie glosses over Saint Laurent’s impact on the fashion world as well as his complicated relationship with Bergé, dwelling instead on his slide into drug abuse. The upside of Lespert’s breakneck, all-encompassing approach is that some of the most important people in Saint Laurent’s life abruptly fall out of the picture forever, their sudden absences providing a palpable sense of the love that’s often sacrificed on the altar of genius. It’s commendable that Lespert and Niney resist flattering their subject, but it’s ultimately hard not to envy those whom Saint Laurent leaves behind.