Yves Saint Laurent might be the first biopic to give audiences even less information about its subject than a Wikipedia entry. Visually opulent and featuring some top notch fashion and costume design, it’s as deep as reading the back of a baseball card. Visually and narratively inspired to act like the Kill Your Darlings or On the Road of haute couture, all that you’ll learn from Jalil Lespert’s terminally empty film is that one of the greatest clothiers to have ever lived was also one of the least cinematically interesting people to have ever had a film made out of their lives.
A basic tracing of the life of its titular designer and tailor (played here by Pierre Niney), the film starts off with his formative years with his family in late 1950s Algiers. Then they mention how he was the understudy and heir apparent to the Christian Dior empire. Then he meets a guy that he really likes named Pierre Berget (Guillaume Gallienne) who will carry on a business and romantic relationship with him throughout the years. Yves proves to be volatile and off his rocker and is diagnosed as bipolar. He continues his promiscuous behaviour in spite of Pierre’s obvious love. He was a pioneer in the field of ready-to-wear fashion for more than just the runway. He experimented with drugs in the 1970s. He’s brilliant! He’s alienating! He’s dead! (Actually since he’s obviously dead in real life and Pierre narrates the film as an open letter to his beloved and departed, that’s not a spoiler.)
The problem here isn’t so much that Lespert clearly gives way more of a shit about how the clothes look than how his film comes together, but in that this film couldn’t have been scripted. I refuse to believe that the words coming out of the mouths of these actors come from something someone sat down to write. It feels like the whole film comes performed via a checklist that simply goes from scene to scene and event to event with the utmost contempt for how perfunctory this person’s life actually was.
The key to the success of any biopic is to convince the audience that what they are seeing isn’t real. If they wanted realness, they would watch a documentary on the subject. Even films that use a documentary styled visual or narrative gambit still have a degree of disbelief. What we get from Lespert feels like a fourth grader reciting a report on the same subject, dutifully making sure that nothing gets left out, told in a straight line, only moderately plagiarized from an encyclopedia or website. The key is to make the audience believe that the subject of a biopic never existed. Sitting through Lespret’s dead-on-arrival work here simply made me think that I believed every word of it and that I never gave a shit that any of it ever happened.
Lespret comes from the “Yeah, I’ve watched a lot of movies” school of direction. Every inch of the film except for Niney and Gallienne comes already on autopilot. There’s a montage of Yves furiously sketching designs set to “Time Has Come Today” that’s positively dripping with cinematic mildew followed a mere two minutes later by a Motorcycle Diaries inspired road trip. They both look like cut scenes from other films. Not only do they feel like filler designed to make the work here feel less like bullet points, but like scenes from other, better movies that are being ripped off wholesale.
Then, almost as soon as his coke years begin, the film simply gives up. He gets sick and Lespret decides that all of the sexiness is gone from his main character. There’s no time for aging and ailing Yves or how Pierre has to cope with his flame’s impending mortality. Maybe that’s because they couldn’t find old age make-up that would convincingly make Niney look the part, but mostly I think it’s because Lespret can’t hide his lack of directorial vision if he doesn’t have Laurent’s designs to fall back on.
But despite the film’s laziness, the biggest sin committed by Lespret is a complete and utter lack of conviction or sense of danger. What good is it to make a film about a boundary pushing icon in their field and then play it as safe and studied as a test pattern? Not once is it established why Yves was a game changer in the fashion industry and even less evidence is given that he was even an interesting person in the first place. What is fashion without risk? Was all this fake restraint just so Lespret could get to use the YSL logo in his film and on the posters? If that’s the case, none of this was even remotely worth the trouble.