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Remembering Yves Saint Laurent

Given the intertwined beauty and troubled complexity of the lives of Yves Saint Laurent and his lover and business partner Pierre Bergé, Jalil Lespert's biopic should have been much more interesting than it is, reports Colin McDowell.
A still from 'Yves Saint Laurent' | Source: 'Yves Saint Laurent' by Jalil Lespert
  • Colin McDowell

LONDON, United Kingdom — Fashion biopics are not unlike buses. You wait for ages for one and then two arrive together, though neither one is quite on the route you had hoped for. In 2009, two films devoted to various moments in the life of Coco Chanel hit the big screen: Coco Before Chanel and Coco & Igor. Now, one of the few other commercially exploitable fashion names is having a turn.

Yves Saint Laurent is the bald and bold title of the first of two films this year devoted to the designer. Despite Hedi Slimane's amendment to the branding of the house, Yves Saint Laurent is a talismanic name and one that the public admires — and, as such, it stands boldly unadorned. This suggests the distributors of the film, directed by Jalil Lespert, thought there was enough brand recognition to ensure a ready audience. But I rather hope not because, beautiful as it is, it disappoints, failing to truly capture the wealth of explosive moments in Saint Laurent's career and private life.

Yves Saint Laurent's life was tempestuous and frequently out of control. The thing that kept him more or less afloat, creatively and psychologically, throughout his long career was his lover, Pierre Bergé, a man of vision and determination. He put both at Yves' disposal during their entire lives together, even when the designer was in such a mental state that all he could do was traduce him for his devotion. And this is the emotional story on which one's enjoyment and involvement in this film is based, though many will also find interest in the lush décor of the elegant lifestyle both men enjoyed in Paris and North Africa, as they began to gradually become very rich indeed.

Of course, despite the love and the success, life was not entirely sunny for the two because of Yves' nervous mental state. It was Bergé who famously declared, "Yves was born with a nervous breakdown," which flippantly memorable as it is, sums up perfectly the personal tragedy of the designer's life. He was incapable of coping with the knocks and disappointments of day-to-day existence and needed a man who could stand in the shadows ready to support when the call came. And, even when Yves had betrayed everything their relationship was about, that man never failed him.

This aspect of their life is re-enacted with conviction by Pierre Niney, who manages to look quite like the young Yves and also conveys the unbalanced craziness and coquetry that Yves used to get his own way. He's also good in the atelier scenes where he captures the creative stress of getting the dress right, as well as trying desperately to hold down his demons and remain total master of the overwrought moments of tension in fittings when everything seems at stake and nothing seems to be going right.

Guillaume Gallienne as Pierre Bergé is allowed a little more opportunity for the interpretation of a complex character whose devotion and deference to Yves in all things creative is well captured in this performance as he masterminds everything that his lover requires, whether the right to buy on a whim anything he wants, including some very expensive art works, and homes in Paris and Morocco, or turning a blind eye to Yves' increasingly predatory need for young men. It was only when Yves was at his most out of control, wallowing in sex, drugs and rock and roll, rarely coming home at nights and even being arrested for cruising along the banks of the Seine, that Bergé accepted defeat and moved out of the home they had so lovingly created for each other.

But he never moved out of Yves' life.

Other characters in the Saint Laurent saga, like Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise, have only bit parts in the film, all I suspect that they had in real-life. Karl Lagerfeld is very strangely cast. Remembering the real Karl from the 1960s and 1970s, I feel he would have every right to slap an injunction on this film merely for the travesty of how he is made to look here. When he was young, Lagerfeld was one of the most strikingly handsome men in fashion. His high cheekbones and strong jaw were matched by the confidence of his air and movements. Even back then, he radiated authority and power. But in this film, he comes over as a nonentity.

Overall, this film should have been very much more interesting than it is. I started looking at my watch before the first hour was over (it runs for 108 minutes). Why should this be so?

There's no doubt the world of high fashion is glamorous and enticing. Its luxury and extravagance are breathtaking — and at no time more so than in the great days of Yves Saint Laurent. The film captures this very well in a series of beautiful, elegant backgrounds, whether in the homes of Bergé and Saint Laurent — rather well reconstructed — or the glamour of the YSL showrooms and ateliers. But there is no sense that we are watching real people rather than cardboard cut-outs. Reality is sacrificed many times for effect — not least when we are asked to believe that, in the confined area of the office and cabine, in which a control freak and a wilful hysteric spent all their working time in close and often tense proximity, everything was calm and dignified. In my own experience of working in couture in the 1970s, this seems unlikely. The only adult I have ever witnessed having a full-blown temper tantrum, lying on the floor, drumming his heels and screaming like a baby, was a famous couturier. But he was Italian, not French.

Ultimately, Yves Saint Laurent fails to hold one's attention. I saw the film at a public screening and was conscious of a certain number of the audience leaving during the second half. I understood why, but I felt sad. Why should fashion seem so silly and unengaging on screen? Why should films devoted to fashion and its famous figures always be so boring? Could it be that beneath all the glamour, which pales as quickly as the memory of a cabaret show at The Folies Bergère, the business of achieving the perfect collar is barely more exciting for the public than watching someone working in a draughtsman's office designing the wing of a plane?

At one point in the film, Bergé says that Yves was only ever really happy twice a year, in January and July, when the collection was being shown. And I can believe it. For me, the most beautiful moments in this film were when Yves' elegant fashion shows are recreated on the screen.

But how authentic a picture does this film paint of two men, a relationship and a period? Well, although I frequently went backstage after his shows to congratulate the designer, I only met Yves once to talk and that was when much of his charisma had gone. But I remember the care that Bergé took of him, because, both being old men by then, he sensed their dual vulnerability and it was very touching. But I also remember when I was very young seeing a picture in the newspapers of Saint Laurent on the day of his first collection after Dior's death (he was installed as head designer of the celebrated house at the age of 21). He looked like a frightened fawn and, even though I was a crass youth with no interest in haute couture, he seemed to me to be simply too slight to fulfil the role of 'Saviour of France' that the papers were claiming for him. Though I do feel privileged to have attended all the great Yves Saint Laurent shows in the ballroom of The Hotel Intercontinental where the models — and what models! — stepped out onto an apparently endless runway through an arch heavy with the most strongly scented and costly of exotic flowers and we settled down for a long show, full of beauty — but towards the end of Yves' career, increasingly reprising his great moments from the past.

I also remember something that Yves carried on from his mentor, Christian Dior. Because he was paranoid about copyists, as all couturiers were in Dior's day, the maestro himself used to peep through a tiny hole in the curtain between the back stage area and the audience, personally checking to see that no sketch books or cameras had been smuggled in by the guests (he is reputed to have once personally ejected a German editor because he thought he had detected a miniature camera in her elaborate hat). Yves also used to look through a chink in the curtain, but in his case it was to make sure that all who should be present were sitting on their little gilt chairs before Bergé gave the signal for the show to begin. I shall never forget that nervous darting eye with no visible body as the prelude to a marvellous three quarters of an hour of glamorous beauty and emotion that was an Yves Saint Laurent show. But I know I am not alone in also remembering the designer during his worst times, stumbling down the runway on the arm of a model or his friend Catherine Deneuve, whilst the whole room held its breath.

Let us hope that the second Saint Laurent film, to be released later this year, is more rigorous and sensitive than the current one. Yves, Pierre Bergé and the golden fashion period they presided over require so much more.

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