Lives of the Saint

Jalil Lespert, Yves Saint Laurent, 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 104 minutes.

YVE SAINT LAURENT, who died in 2008, has already been the subject of three documentaries. David Teboul’s diptych from 2002 consists of the straightforward biography Yves Saint Laurent: His Life and Times and the trancelike Yves Saint Laurent: 5, Avenue Marceau 75116 Paris, which features the unwell designer in his atelier as he oversees the creation of one of his last collections. Pierre Thorreton’s L’Amour fou (2011) traces the eminent courtier’s fifty-year relationship with Pierre Bergé, who was, at various times, YSL’s lover, business partner, caretaker, and protector (and often all four at once), and who is the film’s primary interlocutor. Reviewing the decorous L’Amour fou for this column, I noted the emphasis on the noun in the title at the expense of its modifier: “There’s plenty of love in Thorreton’s documentary—it just needs more crazy.” Jalil Lespert’s biopic Yves Saint Laurent attempts to address the extremes of Bergé’s sexual and emotional life with YSL—a top-bottom, push-pull dynamic brought on, in part, by the designer’s infidelities, fragility, and prodigious substance abuse. Yet these episodes are staged with a dutiful, dull, never-too-undainty pageantry, a symptom of this trivial film’s unadventurousness.

As it happens, Lespert’s project is the first of two dramatizations of the designer’s life to come out this year; Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, which I haven’t seen but eagerly anticipate, premiered last month in competition at Cannes, where it was picked up for US distribution. (There’s a precedent for this weird synchronicity of dueling haute-couture docudramas: In 2009, both Coco Before Chanel and Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, the latter more execrable than the former, opened in France.) But only Lespert’s film, like Thorreton’s before it, was made with the cooperation of Bergé, who, as head of the Saint Laurent Foundation, lent the production several original costumes.

It is not Yves Saint Laurent’s sole instance of borrowing. Though the film concentrates on a two-decade period—between 1957, when YSL (played by Pierre Niney, a near carbon copy with his odd, lanky beauty), then twenty-one, became the head of Dior and met Bergé (Guillaume Galliene), and 1976, the year that both the fashion icon’s cocaine-corrupted body and his romantic relationship with his helpmeet were beginning to fall apart—it also has an unfortunate framing device lifted from L’Amour fou. Thorreton’s doc has as its throughline the 2009 auction of the astonishing art collection the two men amassed; Lespert’s movie uses the preparations for this event as an occasion for Bergé/Galliene, now in septuagenarian drag, to narrate intermittently in voice-over, mawkishly addressing his beloved directly: “You had the stuff of genius. Me, I knew how to accompany you.”

YSL’s brilliance with design, cut, and fabric is rarely shown, save for the courtier’s adjusting a sash just so in an early scene, or propitiously pulling down and flipping through a Mondrian catalogue. After the designer’s signature 1965 mod dresses inspired by the De Stijl artist are shown being modeled at a photo shoot for a few seconds, Bergé’s reminiscing becomes even more extraneous: “Your Mondrian collection was pure genius.” Like off-the-rack clothing, this study of a remarkable talent and relationship follows standard patterns.

Yves Saint Laurent plays at Film Forum in New York June 25–July 8.