It’s time in the UK for the annual rush of French films onto our screens but first there is Yves Saint Laurent which has been around for two or three months in various locations and appears in Bradford next week. I should confess from the outset that I’m not interested in fashion, brand names or celebrities so you might wonder why I went to see a film about a celebrity fashion designer back in March. There are two reasons. First I’m interested in biopics as a form and second, this was the only non-Hollywood film showing in the town I was in.
Yves Saint Laurent is a handsomely-mounted film presented in 2.35:1. I didn’t recognise any of the names of actors or creatives in the titles but I did note that the two lead actors were each given the prestigious appendage of ‘de la Comédie-Française’. Only later did I note that the names of the director (Jalil Lespert), composer and others in the crew suggested a North African link and the film does indeed begin in Algeria in 1958 when Yves is 21 (and already a young star of the fashion industry) and the War of Independence in Algeria is putting pressure on the French colonial families. With this starting point amidst a colonial war, the brilliance of the young Yves and his gay sexuality there is a mix of elements waiting to be exploited in a biopic. What follows does not unfortunately create the drama we might expect.
The triumph of the film is also perhaps its biggest weakness. The clothes are presented reverentially in sumptuous settings and anyone interested in fashion, costumes and set design will have a field day. Again, if you have knowledge of the fashion industry you will enjoy coming across well-known names and how they are involved in the workings of the industry. I do understand that ‘YSL’ is an important figure in the history of fashion. The problem is that with the narrative constructed around the next challenge to present a show more challenging/radical/daring etc. than the one before, the fashion events themselves become increasingly sterile presentations of clothes. Given the characters involved the possibilities for human drama are certainly there and the two lead actors (Pierre Niney as Yves and Guillaume Gallient as his partner Pierre Bergé) certainly could deliver the performances, but my feeling was that the writers were too reverential in their presentation of Yves Saint Laurent himself. As it is we get some familiar stories about the pressures on celebrities and the ways in which they respond. The more sensitive early references to Yves’ sexuality and vulnerability give way to more familiar scenes of degradation with booze and drugs. I began to lose interest and was then shocked to realise that the film just suddenly seemed to end with Yves in his 40s. Since he lived a further thirty years (at a time when his designer brand presumably grew in importance in the fashion industry) I felt like something was missing. I think perhaps I was looking for something similar to the biopic of Serge Gainsbourg.
The most surprising aspect of the film is perhaps its large budget (€12 million) and its popularity in France (box office of $13 million) and the rest of Europe (another $5 million). Clearly there is a big audience for this kind of ‘official’ and safe extravaganza (Saint Laurent’s friends and family seem to have supported the film). It also consolidates the niche genre of the ‘designer biopic’. Following two films focusing on periods of the life of Coco Chanel, we now have this and a second film (‘unofficial’ and scheduled for an October release in France) focusing on Yves Saint Laurent. Enjoy the frocks but don’t expect too much else.