In “Yves Saint Laurent,” an elegantly outfitted but thematically shapeless biopic of the French fashion icon, the costume designer is the star. Though the film’s lavish re-creations of YSL’s 1960s and 1970s runway work leave nary a stitch out of place, its tendency to tell rather than show seems ill-suited to a portrait of the man who brought haute couture to the masses.
Following a brief scene set after the designer’s death in 2008, director Jalil Lespert quickly settles into a this-then-that sketch of 20 years in the life of Saint Laurent, played by Pierre Niney as a shy, gangly, not quite handsome geek.
In 1957, as war raged in his homeland of French Algeria, a 21-year-old Saint Laurent was hobnobbing in Paris, inheriting the throne of Christian Dior and meeting Pierre Berge (Guillaume Gallienne), the suave fellow who would become the young designer’s partner in affairs both entrepreneurial and romantic.
Alas, Lespert proves tastefully timid in treating the latter part of the equation, as an early scene of the gents traipsing along the Seine, periodically stopping to make out, is about as hot as the film dares to get. Like too many movies about gay love, “Yves Saint Laurent” appears more interested in the destructive elements of the relationship, as Saint Laurent’s various addictions and increasingly fragile mental state pull the thread out of the pair’s fabric.
Reports from the recent Cannes Film Festival have argued persuasively that another new biopic — Bertrand Bonello’s “Saint Laurent,” due for release here at year’s end — fashions something funkier from the material.
As for Lespert’s filmic equivalent of sewing by numbers, it rather humorously includes its own negative review in a scene of Berge reading aloud from a newspaper critic’s take on Saint Laurent and his early ’60s display. “Despite a nice collection, he has brought nothing new. It is meticulous and boring.”
In other words, “Yves Saint Laurent” belongs back on the rack.
Rob Nelson writes about movies.