In the battle of the competing biopics of fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent, actor Jalil Lespert's "official" entry got first to the finish line. Unlike Bertrand Bonello's competing version, which has no claim to being an "official", standard biopic, Mr. Lespert's was sanctioned by the designer's estate and especially his surviving partner and guardian of the heritage, Pierre Bergé, from whom it received full cooperation. As such, it is far from memorable, though hardly a sycophantic hagiography, merely a handsome yet forgettable story focusing almost entirely in Saint-Laurent's years as a designer.
From his understudy days at Christian Dior through his disastrous run-ins with the authorities over his military service at the time of the war in Algeria, to the founding and triumph of his own fashion house, Saint-Laurent is portrayed as an inspired but insecure man who sought refuge in his work and could cut people off at a fingersnap, and whose long-lasting romantic relationship with Mr. Bergé was fraught with issues. This is where Mr. Lespert's film, based on the official biography fashion journalist Laurence Benaïm wrote while the designer was still living, sets itself apart from other biopics: it does not hide nor makes a fuss over the homosexuality of its central figure, instead treating it with a straight-forwardness and normality highly unusual for such a traditional, classically formatted biopic. It's highly unlikely that an American equivalent would be as open and frank about it as Yves Saint-Laurent is, which is also a consequence given its subject.
But that frankness is really the only interesting feature of this stilted and good-looking but ultimately very shallow film. While it's clear that for Saint-Laurent fashion was the be-all and end-all of his life, the film never really explores why, settling in for a series of elegantly presented fashion shows intercut with the designer's search for himself as he deals with the real world and the impossible demands his perfectionism makes. There's never a sense of a narrative arc, replaced by an episodic stream of "selected highlights", and were the couple not wonderfully played by Pierre Niney and Guillaume Gallienne, who make Saint-Laurent and Bergé come alive and feel thrillingly real, Yves Saint-Laurent would be merely a pretty fashion spread you skim over without really engaging. With Messrs. Niney and Gallienne, it's merely a wasted opportunity and eye candy for fashionistas.
Cast Pierre Niney, Guillaume Gallienne, Charlotte le Bon, Laura Smet, Marie de Villepin, Nikolai Kinski, Ruben Alves, Astrid Whetnall, Marianne Basler, Jean-Édouard Bodziak, Adeline d'Hermy, Xavier Lafitte, Alexandre Steiger, Philippe Morier-Genoud, Anne Alvaro
Director Jalil Lespert; screenwriters Marie-France Huster, Mr. Lespert and Jacques Fieschi; based on the book by Laurence Benaïm Yves Saint-Laurent; cinematography Thomas Hardmeier (colour, widescreen); composer Ibrahim Maalouf; designer Aline Bonetto; costumes Madeline Fontaine; editor François Gédigier with Nicolas Criqui; producers Wassim Béji and Yannick Bolloré; production companies WY Productions, SND, Ciné France 1888, Hérodiade Films and Umedia in association with Ufund
Screened May 13th 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)