Director: Jalil Lespert
Cast: Pierre Niney, Guillaume Gallienne, Charlottle le Bon, Nikolai Kinski
Running time: 106 min
Union regulations state that film reviewers must only wear clothes that bear the Fruit of the Loom logo. What do we know about fashion? We’re into deep focus, we love a good mise-en-scène, we’ve recently gotten to like Matthew McConaughey, but what can a film like Yves Saint Laurent say to someone who drops in to Clarks “for a look”?
And, for that matter, what does the fashion world know about anything but itself? What the film reviewer resolutely should not do is what the film wants it to do, which is be intimidated by the astonishing faithfulness with which it has captured the accepted narrative of a fashion house worth millions. Jalil Laspert’s film is the approved version, the authorised biopic – you will wonder why Pierre Bergé (played by Guillaume Gallienne), Saint Laurent’s sometime lover, accountant, pimp, Pygmalion, bulldog, whatever, gets so much screentime, until you spot his name in the thank-yous (House of Tolerance director Bertrand Bonello is doing the unauthorised version, Saint Laurent, with Léa Seydoux and Louis Garrel). Lespert had the approval of the estate, which gave him access to the conservation wing – those clothes that will become the museum pieces of the future. We’re talking vested interests, then. Pun intended, no, required.
The film follows Saint Laurent from his childhood in Algeria to his last days (he died in 2008, of brain cancer). Pierre Niney is a ringer for the designer, and he does a good approximation of Saint Laurent’s gentle charisma. Meanwhile, a few old tropes troop down the catwalk. Bergé has often insisted that his partner was bipolar – thus the close-ups of manicured paws frenziedly sketching, the tantrums on verandas, the blue-filtered gloom. We have to put up with the camera’s own violent moodswings as it swoops from glamorous full-body shots – clothes! clothes! – to tight close-ups on moments of emotional introspection – tears! tears! – to contrived snippets of cocktail party conversation, there to jam in plot elements forced from the primary narrative by all that damned glamour.
The catwalk scenes are particularly excruciating. Unlike would-be Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Champions and Jamaican Bobsleigh Teams, haute couture fashion houses do not strive and overcome in an especially cinematic manner. Big numbers get bigger or they don’t; not usually the stuff of movie dreams. We wait in vain for a moment of catharsis, or at least some unspooling of the awful tension generated by Saint Laurent’s early mental health troubles. The catwalk sequences are primed to provide this, but polite applause is all we get. Irony or satire are crucial to the success of the fashion house picture, and even then you’re on thin ice; The Devil Wears Prada was so successful as a study of antic bitchiness because of all it lifted from the old backstage musical.
The only consistently good thing about Yves Saint Laurent is the costume design, but if the best bits of a film about a world-famous fashion designer are the clothes, what was the point again? Excuse me while I find some architecture to dance about.