Yves Saint Laurent (4 stars)

Yves Saint Laurent

The ‘official’ biopic of the couturier takes a glossy look at his fascinating, but tragic life

The impeccably styled but tragic life of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent always had ‘screen adaptation’ written all over it. On the surface, there are his glamorous, emancipating designs; the satiny, mannish tailoring and supple styles which helped him build a powerful empire and ongoing legacy. Then, beneath the gloss and poise of ‘le smoking’, the sad reality of his decades’ long struggle with addiction and depression.

This recent biopic from director Jalil Lespert sews together both sides of the man: the fascinating, but chronically shy boy genius from French Algeria, and the moth-to-lightbulb hedonist who battled with self-doubt and self-destruction for most of his life.

We meet him in 1957, as an intoxicatingly timid, impressive new talent in the couture world, and watch his giddying fast-track up the fashion ranks. We see the mounting levels of fame and work responsibilities take their toll, as the ‘boy prince’ designer at the house of Dior is given an unexpected promotion when Christian Dior dies. Not long after, Saint Laurent receives an army conscription that spirals him into a breakdown, and he’s diagnosed with manic depression.

Early scenes serve well to establish YSL’s coy magnetism – at a party the cocktail-stick-thin beau gosse is told, ‘You’re so shy! So luminous! So young! So handsome!’

Relatively unknown actor Pierre Niney keeps his version of YSL fey and dandy; even during the fun, more debauched phases of the 60s and 70s, where cocaine, drinks binges and ‘partouzes’ started becoming more regular, willowy Niney still looks like he could be batting his soft, doe eyes at the camera in an aftershave ad. Any squalor or tawdriness obviously weren’t welcome in Lespert’s immaculately styled version of reality, which seems to reflect YSL’s approach to life – the couturier liked to be surrounded by beautiful people and things – and the film displays a groomed, tanned and manicured version of his exotic second home in Morocco, chic Parisian apartment, plus beautiful friends Karl Lagerfeld, and muses Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise (played by Nikolai Kinski, Marie de Villepin and Laura Smet respectively).

This film version from Lespert has narrowly pipped a second, rival biopic to the post – Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent was delayed until later this year, after Pierre Bergé, the long-term lover and business partner to Saint-Laurent, didn’t grant approval. Bonello’s version (starring Gaspard Ulliel as YSL and Léa Seydoux as Loulou de la Falaise) threatens to take a less reverent, grittier – some have suggested, possibly more truthful or darker – take on YSL’s private life. Lespert’s film shows Bergé to be a supportive, long suffering, paternal, sometimes controlling figure, taking charge of Laurent when he’d lost control. But sceptics have taken Bergé’s recent objections as a sign of his continuing need to be in charge.

Controversies aside, faced with a glossy, box office-pleasing version from Lespert, and a perhaps less affectionate portrait in the pipeline from Bonello, it’s still hard to imagine a more moving and well-made take on the YSL story than Pierre Thoretton’s excellent 2010 documentary L’Amour Fou, which focussed on Bergé and Saint Laurent’s creative and romantic relationship, and a co-dependence that Bergé speaks very poignantly about. Filmed two years after YSL’s death, it was a moving look at a man, very much missed by the fashion world, not least by Bergé.

Limited release from Fri 21 Mar.


Yves Saint Laurent

  • 4 stars
  • 2014
  • France
  • 1h 41min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Jalil Lespert
  • Cast: Pierre Niney, Guillaume Gallienne, Charlotte Le Bon
  • UK release: 21 March 2014

Biopic of French designer Yves Saint Laurent from the beginning of his career in 1958 when he met his lover and business partner, Pierre Berge.