Having read a couple of reviews by respected fashion critics I didn’t quite know what to expect of the new film Yves Saint Laurent, dedicated to the designer. Having seen the film, directed by Jalil Lespert, this much I can say. Yves Saint Laurent is a beautiful biopic. It is not a documentary dissecting the creative process of one of contemporary fashions founding fathers, it is not an attempt to plot Saint Laurent’s life from cradle to grave and it is not a potted fashion history.
It is, however, a well-crafted, moving love story. From the opening scene, with a youthful Saint Laurent (played with exquisite tenderness by the exquisite Pierre Niney), sketching dresses at his bedroom window, haloed by cut out paper dolls, it is clear that throughout his life this was the prime motivation for the man.
While the narrative weaves in moments of context such as the Algerian War and the 1968 students riots, the thrust of the film is the relationship between Saint Laurent and his lover and business partner Pierre Bergé (played with immense restraint by Guillaume Gallienne) and the designer and his demons. Alongside Niney’s uncanny performance as Saint Laurent, Gallienne does a fine job in his portrayal of Bergé, whose role it seems was to stoically hold things together as all around him partied.
Lespert has made a subtle film with discreetly observed performances. The film does well to capture the tension and inner-turmoil of the atelier and backstage shenanigans of a catwalk show – the fear, the elation, the desire to disappear, the need to be noticed, applause, bows, anguish and tears. And then come the reviews that are often as much a display of clever-clogs wordsmanship and insider one-upmanship on behalf of the critics. Like Saint Laurent, we all carry baggage, designer or otherwise. Yet one of the most hurtful comments comes from the lips of the designer himself when he spurns a good friend, a model that he believes has betrayed him. ‘Her style is yesterday’s news,’ he says.
And then there are the clothes. The film provides glorious glimpses of Saint Laurent’s iconic back catalogue, loaned by the real-life Bergé from the designer’s archive, including the first outfit we see in Saint Laurent’s debut show, a double-breasted navy pea coat and cream trousers, that is a classic in anyone’s eyes. Naturally a le smoking trouser-suit saunters across the screen, as does a block shouldered emerald fur jacket (part of YSL’s 1971 Forties-inspired collection that was seen as scandalous), a trio of Mondrian-inspired shifts and the leather Beatnik looks inspired by the styles worn by students on the streets of Paris. And then there is the extraordinary 1976 Ballet Russes collection that acts as a reminder: it was the clothes that made the drama. Saint Laurent skilfully, intuitively focused all his torment and troubles into his designs.
The young Saint Laurent was a rare thing. When asked by a journalist who designed the 300 outfits in his collection he answers meekly, ‘Me’.
In the 1970s, when Saint Laurent grew his hair and let it all hang out (almost literally in a fragrance advert in which he posed naked), Bergé notes as the film’s narrator that ‘revolution sold like there was no tomorrow.’ And in the good times, between Paris and Marrakech, surrounded by his coterie of beautiful people (Betty, Loulou, Karl, Jacques), Saint Laurent slides into the demi-monde on self-destruct; a decadent diet of sex and drugs played out to a rock‘n’roll soundtrack. Sadly, a familiar story that has been reworked time and again in fashion. We know the rest.
As mentioned previously, Niney’s study of Saint Laurent is striking in his accuracy of nuance and nowhere is this more affecting than in his appearance during that 1976 Russian-inspired fashion show staged in the ballroom of the InterContinental Hotel in Paris. Having been lucky enough to attend later shows by Yves Saint Laurent at the same venue it would always come as something of a shock to see the celebrated designer emerge at the end of the show and wander down the catwalk to take his bows. I know I was not alone in the worry that he might not make it back. Niney captures the sadness in this moment of triumph with a precision verging on the cruel: the off-kilter slack jaw, the flop of his bow and the almost childlike need for approbation.
It is appropriate that the film ends, as it began with Saint Laurent sitting at a window sketching dresses, if only in Bergé’s imaginings. Like I said, this film is a touching love story dedicated to one of fashion’s most colourful characters. I loved it.
Above: Photograph by IRW shows look 63, modelled by Kat, from Yves Saint Laurent’s Autumn/Winter 2001 Haute Couture collection – the last to be presented in the ballroom of the InterContinental Hotel, Paris.
Below: Sketches from my notebook for Yves Saint Laurent’s Autumn/Winter 2001 Haute Couture collection.