By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — It’s the three faces of Yves. Saint Laurent, that is.
Three: there was the private one, the one he showed the world, and the one we’re shown in Yves Saint Laurent.
Would that the latter was the most interesting of the three. But, alas.
For those of us for whom the world of fashion is a distant planet, Yves Saint Laurent is an introduction to the subject that purports to present the man behind the myth but still gives us mostly myth and minimal man.
Regardless, even the title tells you that the concentration here is on the man himself rather than the effect he had on others with his work -– which actually gets surprisingly short shrift here.
This is a reverent, conventional biopic (the first of two French productions about YSL due out this year) about the life and career of the celebrated and iconic French designer that quickly gets to the focal character’s rapid ascent through the world of fashion and proceeds to demonstrate the way he revolutionized haute couture.
It’s a stylish, appropriately well-designed movie that looks great (as of course it must) but doesn’t do much of anything dramatically. There’s little in the way of intimacy or urgency.
Oh, sex and drink and drugs rear their heads along the way, but despite the flashback structure, this is still essentially an “And Then He Designed” recitation. So make sure you bring your strong interest in the subject matter to the theatre.
Pierre Niney plays the precocious title icon as a soft-spoken, fragile, and bespectacled creature who suffers from manic depression and a nervous breakdown following a distasteful and traumatic stint in the French army during the Algerian War of Independence.
Then he sets the fashion world ablaze with groundbreaking clothes after starting in the late 1950s at the House of Dior, taking over for his mentor, Christian Dior, in 1957, and being fired in 1960 while in a bed at a French military hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown.
But from the moment he opens his own house, worldwide women’s fashion is forever changed, starting with the introduction of the elegant tuxedo as an option for women; turning out triangle-shaped dresses inspired by the paintings of the Dutch painter, Mondrian; and bringing credibility to the ready-to-wear phenomenon.
Guillaume Gallienne plays art dealer Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent’s dependable, matter-of-fact life and business partner and is the film’s reflecting, reminiscing narrator, functioning as a virtual caretaker and protector of the severely stressed YSL much of the time, patiently navigating the corporate ship beyond the rough waters created by Saint Laurent’s frequent artistic tantrums, but also noticing with extreme jealousy Saint Laurent’s playfully flirtatious relationship with his favorite house model, Victoire (Charlotte Le Bon), as well as his romantic and sexual relationship with Jacques de Bascher (Xavier Lafitte).
French actor-turned-director Jalil Lespert (24 Bars, Headwinds) works from a straightforward and shallow screenplay that he co-wrote with Jacques Fieschi and Marie-Pierre Huster, based on the biography by Laurence Benaim.
But the shapers of the narrative seem to have no interest whatsoever in the first two acts building to anything of consequence in the third act. So they just don’t bother even trying to provide a dramatic payoff.
The director gets a natural, persuasive performance from Gallienne as Berge, but a flat and uninteresting one (even if it passes muster as an accurate impression) from Niney in the title role.
Consequently, we get little insight into the visionary designer’s particular genius, if that’s indeed what it was. As for the rest of the characters, they are treated as props, nothing more.
Here’s a movie that often seems little other than set decoration and costume design.
So, is this what we would describe as a respectable motion picture? Well, okay, after a… fashion.
Which is why we’ll try on 2 stars out of 4 for Yves Saint Laurent.
Bottom line: do we exit with a greater interest in the world of high fashion that the protagonist had so much to do with than we had as we entered?
In a word, non.