Classy film: Yves Saint Laurent
I normally use the “classy film” label for any and all film reviews I post, but rarely has one been so deserving of the title. Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent biopic, which got unprecedented access to the Saint Laurent archives, is as elegant, as high-octane and as fashionable as the man himself.
The film starts shortly before Saint Laurent took over at Dior (1957) and ends with the Ballets Russes collection (1976). Two decades of revolutionising fashion and giving more power to women through the way they dressed. But also, two decades of drugs, alcohol and tumultuous love.
Packing 20 prolific years into 110 minutes was risky. At times, Lespert walks a very fine line between cramming short, almost cameo appearances by all the Saint Laurent legend-makers (Betty Catroux (Marie de Villepin), Loulou de la Falaise (Laura Smet), Karl Lagerfeld (Nikolai Kinski), Anne-Marie Munoz (Adeline D’Hermy) etc.) and lacking depth and substance.
Guillaume Galienne, who plays Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s partner in business and in life, explains that Lespert first described the story to him as inspired by Amadeaus. He wanted to “show the creative process through a couple, through a love story”.
Despite hints of Saint Laurent’s fashion process, including a scene showing him create his iconic Mondrian dress, and hints of Bergé’s business genius, the core of the film is the Saint Laurent-Bergé relationship.
Everything has been written, especially by French media, about both men. At the French Institute UK film première, most questions focused on the contemporary perception of Bergé, who’s renowned as being a bit of a bastard.
But this isn’t a film about the Bergé of the 2000s, the political man and the guardian of the YSL legend. This is a film about the Bergé from the 50s through to the 70s, a man who always walked one step behind his partner and who then barely figured in the YSL public story. Gallienne, whose father did business with Bergé and whose mother dressed in Saint Laurent, acknowledged that he was not fond of the character at first but developed a tenderness for him as production went on.
"This is a story about how you love - and live with - a genius. The guy [Saint Laurent] comes home and he’s just had sex with half the planet, he’s a manic depressive and he’s high on cocaine… but they loved each other, not for who they wanted the other to be, but for who they were", he explained to the Daily Telegraph fashion editor Lisa Armstrong, who was at the French Institute.
As well as characters, Lespert namechecks numerous iconic YSL moments: La Vilaine Lulu, the comic book about Saint Laurent’s devil alter ego; his erotic drawings; the launch of Rive Gauche, the first pret-a-porter brand; the Ballets Russes collection…Anybody can see the film and enjoy it, but some background knowledge will help understand how significant some of it is.
This is one of the reasons why I find Entertainment One’s decision to release a dialogue-less English trailer surprising. So far, coverage in the UK has been dominated by fashion publications, or for broadsheets, reviews written by fashion editors. Outside France, where Saint Laurent is a cultural must-know and the biopic reached nearly 1,000,000 tickets at the box office in two weeks, this is unlikely to be a film people go see because they happen to be at the cinema at the time it is showing. I doubt trying not to scare viewers away with subtitles will change that.
Choosing to advertise the movie with a silent trailer means people will miss out on Pierre Niney’s absolute accuracy in reproducing Saint Laurent’s particular way of speaking. To nail it, Niney worked with a voice coach for five months.
He also trained with a physical coach, a necessity since over the course of the film, Saint Laurent goes from the good looking designer posing naked for the launch of his first fragrance, Pour Homme, to a man puffed up by drugs and struggling to walk.
Saint Laurent is seen sketching dresses a few times. Lespert was adamant Niney would have to be the one doing the drawing on screen. For five months the actor, who says he “sucked” at sketching, took lessons with a former Saint Laurent collaborator, a woman who worked with him in his last years as a couturier.
The film received full backing from Saint Laurent Paris and the Kering group (the brand’s current owner). Last October, Hedi Slimane, current YSL creative director, shot Niney for a feature in Le Figaro focused on Yves Saint Laurent. Niney was front row (next to Lespert and Bergé) at the Spring/Summer 2014 menswear show. The house dressed him at the Césars awards in February, and likely for most of the film promotion - although suit credits are hard to find.
Earlier this month, Niney released a three minutes short for Yves Saint Laurent Beauté, La Nuit de Pierre Niney (last picture). It highlights, in black and white, his vision of a Parisian night, from the Comédie Française to the bar Montana through the Tuileries. The short is part of a series of nine films broadcast on French TV in March. It is a nice attempt at marketing story telling around the men’s fragrance La Nuit de l’Homme.
Chanel, with both the face of Chanel No.5 Audrey Tautou and house muse Anna Mouglalis appearing in biopics about its founder, respectively in Coco avant Chanel and Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, had a similar brand and cinema tie in in 2009.
Niney is the Jennifer Lawrence of French cinema: an actor in his early 20s, heralded as a genius by his more seasoned peers, who can do no wrong and who fashion houses would really like to partner with. As the luxury sector tries to redefine the celebrity game, making sure there is something beyond a contract and money tying a house to a name in the public eye, cinema seems to be a good way to ingrain affinities in the collective consciousness.
Not that it is anything new. Yves Saint Laurent himself took advantage of it. His collaboration with Catherine Deneuve was immortalised in the career-defining Belle de Jour, which he created the costumes for, ensuring the names Saint Laurent and Deneuve would forever appear together in almost every single fashion report about either.