"Yves Saint Laurent," the first of two French-made biopics being released this year about the iconic fashion designer, is a stylish, serviceable recounting of Saint Laurent's life from the late 1950s through the '70s. But watchable as it may be, this drama lacks intimacy and urgency. It's also missing the kind of deep artistic soul that would seem de rigueur for a look back at one of the world's most influential couturiers.
The film, directed by Jalil Lespert, begins as Saint Laurent (Pierre Niney) ascends, at age 21, to head designer at the House of Dior. A swift, abortive stint in the French army during the Algerian War of Independence then leads the manic-depressive designer to a nervous breakdown. This is followed by Saint Laurent's breakaway from Dior to establish his own couture house, with the help of lover and protector Pierre Bergé (Guillaume Gallienne).
Wild financial success and international acclaim ensue, but the movie ends up over-focusing on Saint Laurent's descent into sex-and-drugs-fueled debauchery and ongoing ill-behavior toward the so-called love-of-his-life Bergé. (The couple romantically split in 1976 but remained business partners until Saint Laurent's death in 2008.)
As Saint Laurent is largely, perhaps aptly, depicted here as childish, petulant and selfish, he remains a thoroughly resistible character. This matter isn't helped by Niney's cool, fussy presence and hawkish looks. In Gallienne's hands, Bergé often emerges as the more intriguing persona.
The script by Marie-Pierre Huster, Jacques Fieschi and Lespert (based on the book by Laurence Benaim), underexplores Saint Laurent's creative genius and what truly inspired him, both inside and out. (Although the film has plenty of dialogue, there's a dearth of real dialoging.) The inner workings of the designer's business empire also receive short shrift.
Fans of high fashion and 1960s and '70s trappings will certainly enjoy the picture's deft visuals. If only we got to know the man behind the myth with equal proficiency.
'Yves Saint Laurent'
MPAA rating: R for sexual content and drug use; in French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes