Thoroughly aiming to be innocuous and amiable rather than challenging or illuminating, Yves Saint Laurent is a rather gauche biopic on the seminal haute couture designer, though the film’s finely tuned cinematography and exquisite on-location shooting are director Jalil Lespert’s desperate attempts to suggest otherwise. Saint Laurent (Pierre Niney), whose pioneering years in the late 1950s as head designer at the House of Dior comprises the film’s primary temporal concerns, struggles with his art, his lovers, and his genius, but sluggishly rendered melodrama is Lespert’s sole discursive mode for explicating rarefied tumult, adhering almost exclusively to scene after scene of shot/reverse-shot dialogue exchanges, medium two-shots, and aerial establishing shots to display the impressive milieus. For all of the supposed passion and anguish in Saint Laurent’s clothing and relationships, Lespert consistently neglects to imbue the film with such a comparable level of ambition or desire, instead painting in broad, tone-deaf strokes that are strategically tailored to satisfy less ardent dinner-and-a-movie patrons.
The film’s four credited screenwriters, adapting the 2002 biography by Laurence Benaïm, treat historical recollection as fodder for sentimental exertion, resigned to reduce Saint Laurent’s innovations to a series of back-and-forth exchanges with various models, assistants, and executives, while giving his relationship with partner Pierre Bergé (Guillaume Gallienne) no more depth than a compendium of psychological, exposition-driven conversations, accented by an older Bergé’s sporadic and ponderous musings in recollected voiceover. There’s also model Victoire Doutreleau (Charlotte Le Bon), whose continued frustrations with Saint Laurent culminate with a slap to the face, leaving him bleary-eyed, but too prideful to sulk for long at his misgivings. Lespert largely treats relationships and time in such a manner, casting characters to the periphery once they’ve openly displayed their disgust with the titular designer. Moreover, Lespert shies away from sexualizing his characters beyond moderate displays of affection in closed quarters, especially Saint Laurent, whose carnal appetite is given satiation only once inside the confines of a gay bar, which Lespert lenses with a predictably monochromatic red filter. The color, presumably meant to symbolize the depths of Saint Laurent’s drug-fueled, orgiastic lifestyle, ironically suggests the director’s inability to dispense the cinematic red tape and offer a less questionable, even objectionable take on unrestrained butt-fucking-as-rock-bottom.
When Lespert does make more interesting visual choices, such as shooting a dinner sequence from afar, through a half-opened door frame, it’s revealed to be but a means to keep a distraught Saint Laurent in frame once he leaves the table, as the shot then dissolves into a leap forward in years. Thus, the visual cue here is less canny than competent, as Lespert continually renders visual style as supplementary to a flimsy narrative treatment that would necessitate far more flair and energy to make it engaging, much less urbane. Lespert also apparently comes from the Robert Zemeckis school of era-specific montage à la Forrest Gump and Flight, as the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today” accompanies a disco-themed sequence of drug use, sexual promiscuity, and ample cigarette smoking. But even here, any sense of time, texture, or significance is pummeled by a cringingly literal song choice, which merely affirms the already apparent psychedelic zeitgeist. The scene could serve as a microcosm for Yves Saint Laurent as a whole, consistently, and wrongly, electing the most accessible and middlebrow route to psychologizing one of fashion’s most enduring demagogues.