Clothes make the man, but can’t save the film, in “Yves Saint Laurent,” in which the life of one of haute couture’s great innovators gets disappointingly by-the-numbers treatment. The first of two YSL biopics scheduled for release this year, Jalil Lespert’s awkwardly structured pic offers a superficial summary of key developments in the fashion prodigy’s life and career between the ages of 21 and fortysomething, centering its narrative on his relationship with b.f. and business partner Pierre Berge — though neither the film nor Pierre Niney’s rather academic lead turn really locate the man behind the signature specs. The Weinstein Co. has already acquired U.S. rights to the film, which opened in France last month, though Bertrand Bonello’s starrier (and hopefully superior) “Saint Laurent” seems far the safer bet with international arthouse auds.
Five years ago, Coco Chanel was also the subject of dueling biopics, though in the case of that particular French fashion icon, her life was storied and controversial enough to sustain multiple narratives. Perhaps Bonello’s film will make clearer the reasons for the equivalent fascination with Saint Laurent: His professional legacy may be unassailable, but “Yves Saint Laurent” presents him as a wan, petulant figure, susceptible to the same vices and vanities as all too many others in an industry not celebrated for its rich human values.
Neither does the film offer much insight into the man’s extraordinary artistry: Madeline Fontaine’s costumes may be eminently covetable, but they alone speak for Saint Laurent’s rigorous design principles, revolutionary sense of gender identity and real-world influence. Early on, Lespert’s film shows the precocious designer dazzling his employer, Christian Dior, by reshaping a little black dress with a white sash belt, but barring the odd sketchbook montage, that’s about as much as we actually see of him in creative mode; his floaty Marrakech cocaine binges occupy considerably more screen time. “Death must resemble this — a lack of inspiration,” our perma-lugubrious hero moans at one point — it’s one of the film’s less self-aware moments.
As has been declared mandatory in the modern biopic playbook, there’s an inconsistently applied framing device of sorts, following Berge (played with stolid dignity by Guillaume Gallienne) in the immediate wake of the designer’s death in 2008, as he settles the Saint Laurent estate and auctions off their formidable art collection. (Berge stayed on as Saint Laurent’s professional partner after the dissolution of their romantic relationship.) This is material already covered in Pierre Thoretton’s much more illuminating 2010 documentary “L’amour fou,” though the mostly ornamental framework serves principally to introduce Gallienne’s ungainly, often illogical second-person narration, which runs throughout the film — even in stretches of the subject’s life where Berge wasn’t present.
In chronological terms, the film begins in 1957, with Saint Laurent at his family homestead in Oran, Algeria, shortly before he is named the youngest head designer in the history of the venerable House of Dior. Even at the outset of his career, he’s as arrogant as he is emotionally frail, and his special-snowflake sensitivity intensifies as the narrative races through some crucial events of his early years: his somewhat low-chemistry introduction to Berge; his mental breakdown after dodging the draft for the Algerian War; his dismissal from Dior and the ensuing legal battle that eventually provided him and Berge with the funds to set up an independent fashion empire.
Things pall, however, in the mid-’60s, as obligatory strains of psychedelic rock invade the soundtrack and the fashion world’s so-called “Little Prince” dives headlong into the era’s drug culture and free-love psychology. His mental state predictably suffers; so does the narrative, which enters a tedious holding pattern as Saint Laurent bounces alternately between his most self-destructive and self-flagellating impulses, while his romance with Berge grinds to its inexorable conclusion. All the while, he was doing some of his most fascinating work in the industry, though you wouldn’t know it here: YSL’s groundbreakingly androgynous Liberation line is treated simply as a pretext for a sexy, low-lit montage in which tuxedo-clad models writhe lissomely against each other, rather undercutting its feminist significance.
After Saint Laurent and Berge’s breakup, the film comes to a rather abrupt stop, with the last 30 years of the designer’s life left largely unaddressed. This suggests “Yves Saint Laurent,” despite its single-minded title, was intended more as a relationship study all along — though it’s hardly comprehensive on that score, either. Saint Laurent is written as such a prissy, solipsistic figure from the outset that it’s hard to see what kept the partnership going for as long as it did. Niney (certainly a closer ringer for the designer than the more dreamily handsome Gaspard Ulliel, who is headlining the Bonello film) replicates his nervy physical tics and wispy, arch vocal delivery with accuracy and dedication, but this chilly performance is less successful in evoking either his personal or professional passions.
Technically, the film is as well dressed as you’d expect, with Aline Bonetto’s production design matching Fontaine’s exactingly researched wardrobe for elegance and excess. Neither woman’s contribution, however, is as glowingly showcased as it should be by Thomas Hardmeier’s shadow-bathed, matte-finish lensing, which is carefully composed but appeared a tad washed out at the screening attended.