Entertainment :: Movies

Yves Saint Laurent

by Joseph Pisano
Contributor
Wednesday Jun 25, 2014
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Pierre Niney and Charlotte Le Bon star in 'Yves Saint Laurent'
Pierre Niney and Charlotte Le Bon star in 'Yves Saint Laurent'  (Source:SND)

According to the postscript tacked on to the new biopic "Yves Saint Laurent," the French designer "revolutionized" women's fashion. As not much of a clotheshorse, darned if I know why, since, according to the preceding movie, Saint Laurent was a spoiled, uptight wunderkind turned drug-addled libertine who occasionally sobered up just enough to turn out a nice collection. We are informed that one showing was inspired by the work of the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, which seems kind of neat... but revolutionary?

To be sure, the movie, shot with all the glossiness of a fashion magazine, is fond of declaring Saint Laurent's genius, but director Jalil Lespert and his stable of screenwriters apparently understand it about as much as I do. Or, perhaps, they figured that nobody should need to have Saint Laurent's greatness explained to them.

Regardless, unless their goal was only to titillate audiences, it was not the best narrative strategy to tell the designer's tale from the perspective of his long-time lover and business partner, Pierre Berg (Guillaume Gallienne), who, when it comes to Saint Laurent, was apparently mostly an expert in being jerked around. Between hagiographic voice-overs, Berg attends to the enfant terrible, receiving little gratitude, and no fidelity, in return. Though he does exact some strange Ibsenesque revenge by boinking Saint Laurent's favorite model and flirty muse, Victoire Doutreleau (Charlotte Le Bon). This, of course, was not ideal behavior.

By the age of twenty-one, the Algerian-born-and-raised Saint Laurent, who died in 2008, was the shining light of the fabled House of Dior, at the time the heart and height of Parisian haute couture. It was a remarkable rise that does not interest the filmmakers at all, who start things off, in 1957, when the bespectacled, diffident Saint Laurent (Pierre Niney) is already on the threshold of greatness. There are allusions to the struggles he endured as a youth, like a domineering mother and strict Catholic education, which conspired to sap his self-confidence, and blunt his burgeoning sexuality. But anyone curious about how Saint Laurent, at such a tender age, overcame his past to become Christian Dior's hand-picked successor will have to Google the information.

The movie is frustratingly replete with biographical dead-ends, inevitably setting aside the more interesting facets of Saint-Laurent's life for repetitively gossipy ones. Most unforgivably, it only briefly, and glibly, dramatizes the events surrounding Saint Laurent's 1960 conscription into the French army.

Saint Laurent had attempted to evade the draft, but, after heavy press criticism of both him and the House of Dior, he reported for duty. As a pied-noir -- a term used to describe French citizens who returned to France after having lived in one of its North African colonies -- Saint Laurent's decision about whether to fight or not to fight must have been emotionally torturous. Making real-life matters more difficult, Saint Laurent was subjected to the same sort of homophobic bullying in basic training that he experienced at school.

To its momentarily fascinating credit, the movie does show the upshot of Saint Laurent's twenty-day stint in the military: Berg visiting him in a mental hospital, where Saint Laurent has been diagnosed with a bevy of psychological maladies. But, ultimately, Berg -- again, not the greatest choice of informant --seems inclined to chalk it all up to artistic temperament, when, clearly, Saint Laurent was dealing with personal and cultural issues that ran far deeper.

Although Saint Laurent's pied-noir status must have also profoundly affected his relationships in Paris, given the well-documented rupture the Algerian revolution caused in French society, the filmmakers only hint at the possibility of a problem. There are worried phone calls to his family in Oran and subtle suggestions that Saint Laurent's uneasiness in the beau monde may relate to his upbringing on the other side of the Mediterranean, but the filmmakers are oddly content to breeze past this material, as if lingering on it would be too complicated.

Niney's performance benefits enormously from the actor's striking resemblance to the young Saint Laurent. But, because Niney is saddled with such a lazy script, his efforts become increasingly one-note, resulting in his advantageous looks standing out as just another example of the movie's frustrating obsession with the superficial.

Joseph Pisano is a freelance writer living in New York.

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