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New Release Review - Yves Saint Laurent

Biopic of the iconic French fashion designer.
Directed by: Jalil Lespert
Starring: Pierre Niney, Guillaume Gallienne, Charlotte Le Bon, Nikolai Kinski




Jalil Lespert's biopic of France's most treasured fashion designer covers roughly a 20 year period, beginning with Laurent's (Niney) transplant from his family's estate in colonial Algeria to fifties Paris, a city emerging from its post war rubble and blossoming into the center of the fashion world. Laurent becomes an assistant to Christian Dior, eventually becoming his successor before striking out to launch his own iconic fashion house. Finding himself the focal point of a love triangle involving model Victoire (Le Bon) and his business partner Pierre Bergé (Gallienne), Laurent becomes increasingly unstable, developing a reliance on cocaine.
Ever since the international success of the 2007 Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose, the movie that launched Marion Cotillard to global stardom, France has been mining its twentieth century cultural icons for worthy subject matter. With films like Coco Before Chanel, Renoir and now Yves Saint Laurent, the results have been far from noteworthy. The Piaf film succeeded because it was basically a musical and was able to let the viewer know why the chanteuse is held in such high esteem by simply having Cotillard perform a coterie of her greatest hits. Taking a painter or fashion designer as your subject is a much more difficult task. Focusing on their output can lead to a rather didactic film, an approach better suited to a documentary format, so the makers of biopics have usually tended to portray the personal lives of their subjects rather than their artistic legacies.
The trouble inherent in adopting this approach when dealing with a subject involved in the arts is that, by their nature, artists tend to live reclusive, uneventful lives. Laurent's story has little in the way of drama for a film-maker to cling onto. The character arc of Laurent is essentially one of a wealthy young man who becomes a much wealthier middle-aged man, albeit with some substance abuse issues and, to borrow from Sullivan's Travels, a little bit of sex.
Lespert rarely attempts to provide insight into why Laurent rose to the top of his profession. The music swells during the film's many catwalk scenes, telling us we're watching a pivotal moment in the history of fashion, but if, like me, you're a clothing philistine, you'll be left scratching your head as to why Laurent's threads are so revolutionary.
If you've seen any biopic set in this timeframe you'll know exactly how this will all play out and you won't win any prizes for guessing our hero develops a cocaine problem in the seventies. The period recreation is pretty haphazard and the music anachronistic, with tunes appearing on the soundtrack several years before they were recorded. Visually and narratively, the film resembles the sort of prestige dramas premiered by UK TV networks on Sunday evenings and the climax comes at what seems a randomly chosen point in Laurent's life, a closing title card telling us he passed away in 2008 but leaving us wondering what happened in the three decades left unmentioned.
Unless you have a vested interest in the world of high fashion, Yves Saint Laurent is a dull, by the numbers biopic that fails to convince us of its subject's worth.
4/10


Eric Hillis

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