Yves Saint Laurent

June 28, 2014
Pierre Niney in Yves Saint Laurent (2014)
Pierre Niney in Yves Saint Laurent (2014)

Behind every great man, as we learn in Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent, there’s a great man. More than any designer of the 20th century, Yves Saint Laurent (1936-2008) revolutionised the world of fashion, but his genius for haute couture may never have been fully realised without the business acumen of Pierre Bergé.

This conventional, solid bio-pic begins with Saint Laurent’s childhood in the French colonial enclave of Oran, Algieria, a town mythologised by Albert Camus for the boredom it inspired. Saint Laurent was hailed as a prodigy when he began working for Christian Dior, but his own label was to make him the most famous designer of the modern era. Only Coco Chanel might be set at the same level, and she has been the subject of two bio pics over the past few years.

Following Dior’s sudden death, the 21 year-old Saint Laurent became head designer at the firm, putting together a first collection that had newspapers declaring: “France is saved!” Soon afterwards his tale took a dark turn. We see Saint Laurent as a manic depressive, wracked by insecurities and nervous tics. By the mid-1970s, when his reputation is at its height, he is hopelessly addicted to drugs and alcohol, unable to cope with the smallest tasks.

The mature Saint Laurent was an international celebrity and a total disaster. All other abilities seemed to have fallen away except the capacity to keep drawing and creating. Saint Laurent is revealed as an artist but never a businessman; a lifelong devotee of beauty with no interest in money.

This is where one must acknowledge the role of Pierre Bergé. A close friend of Christian Dior, he claimed to have never thought of fashion as anything but a way of making money until he saw Saint Laurent’s first Dior collection in 1958. The hard-headed Bergé was converted to the cult of beauty, while Saint Laurent found his guardian angel. The two men were soon living together and would stay close until Saint Laurent’s death from brain cancer at the age of 71.

Although this may sound romantic, it was a difficult, ugly, stormy relationship. The partners were ready to inflict pain and humiliation on each other, but remained yoked together like characters in a Beckett play. By 1976 they claimed the relationship was over, but their wealth and lifestyle would not permit of a separation.

The real windfall for Saint Laurent and Bergé came with the introduction of the first prêt-à-porter line in 1966. It may have been intended as a way of ‘democratising’ fashion, but it achieved every retailer’s dream of marrying high prices and high turnover. Nevertheless, it proved an exhausting innovation for the ailing Saint Laurent, who was obliged to design two haute couture and two ready-to-wear lines every year.

Bergé has given his blessing to this movie which portrays neither him nor Saint Laurent in a flattering light. One may only speculate about the bits of the story that were omitted. Perhaps it’s OK to be displayed as a bastard, so long as you’re a successful, sophisticated, intelligent bastard.

The film is dominated by outstanding performances by two actors from the Comédie Francaise: Pierre Niney as the febrile Saint Laurent, and Guillaume Galienne, as his pragmatic partner. The rest of the cast veer in and out of the story in a blur of decadent parties and fashion shows. The retinue includes familiar names from the Saint Laurent inner circle such as Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise. Nikolai Kinski plays the young Karl Lagerfeld, in the days before he became an android with a pony tale and a high collar.

Bergé has said that Saint Laurent died at the right time, because he would have hated the way the fashion business has metamorphosed into a ruthless multinational industry, in which marketing and merchandising have become more important than creativity.

Considering that Lespert wants us to see Saint Laurent as the last true artist among the great fashion gurus, it’s odd that his own approach is tradesmanlike rather than artistic. It may not, however, be such a bad policy when one recalls the horrendous excesses of directors such as Ken Russell and Derek Jarman in their bio pics of famous artists. Better a solid portrait in the realist manner than a surrealist self-indulgence.

It’s ironic that the more glamour Lespert injects, the more bleak and desperate it all feels, as Saint Laurent disappears beneath the waves of his own celebrity. Yes, it’s that old story about how money and fame do not bring happiness. It would be a very boring tale if they did, but this is merely one of the great Hollywood myths. It’d be more accurate to say that if money and fame bring you happiness you’ll never be the subject of a movie.

Yves Saint-Laurent
Directed by Jalil Lespert
Screenplay by Jacques Fieschi, Mari-Pierre Huster, Jalil Lespert & Jérémie Guez, from a book by Laurence Benaïm
Starring Pierre Niney, Guillaume Galienne, Charlotte Le Bon, Laura Smet, Marie de Villepin, Nikolai Kinski, Xavier Lafitte
France, rated M, 106 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 28 June, 2014.