At three years old, he told his aunt he didn’t like the dress she was wearing; at 21, he took over the house of Dior. Yves Saint Laurent, enfant terrible and French national treasure, is the subject of an affectionate homage in French documentarian David Teboul’s two films, which were both made during the grand couturier’s last season.
Yves Saint Laurent: His Life and Times opens with the Proustian designer seated in his atelier’s gilded salon, looking at old photographs and reminiscing, in his frail, haunting voice, about his sun-drenched childhood in colonial Algeria. Born in Oran in 1936, Saint Laurent’s talent and ambition matured early, according to his mother, Lucienne Mathieu Saint Laurent, who recalls the hypersensitive 11th-grader dreaming of his name emblazoned in gold across the Champs Élysées. He didn’t have long to wait. In 1955, he joined Christian Dior as an assistant; three years later Dior, king of la haute couture, died, bequeathing to his prodigy the mantle of his empire.
Fired after a glorious debut and sudden setback, Saint Laurent was recuperating from nervous stress in a psychiatric hospital when he decided, with his lover and business partner Pierre Berge, to strike out on his own. From its shaky beginnings in 1962, the house of YSL—with its tuxedos, safari jackets, romantic Russian garb, and Mondrian dresses— came to embody an epoch marked by androgyny, hedonism, and the lure of the exotic.
Teboul’s film is most fun when invoking the beat of this heady era, with archival clips, interviews with YSL muses Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Catroux, and pictures of the young designer as a bearded pseudo-hippie or mystic seeker. Teboul treads lightly over the master’s failings—his psychological vulnerability and notorious bouts of addiction—and the late waning of his creative powers is never addressed. Still, this is a tender and engaging portrait of a marvelously elusive personality, whose style remains timeless.
Yves Saint Laurent: 5, Avenue Marceau, 75116 Paris, a cinema verité-style look at the inner workings of the designer’s haute couture atelier, begins in a dressing room, where a charmingly disheveled and chatty Catherine Deneuve is trying on a few little numbers for daytime. A family feeling pervades this intimate documentary, which follows three months of creation for a single season’s collection (Winter 2001), from the first drawings to the last finished garment. “Sensational, ravishing,” Saint Laurent murmurs, as his little French bulldog dozes, and a stunning African model sashays before him in a simple white cloth sketch of an evening dress whose final version will be elaborately embroidered in silk organza. Interspersed with the atelier’s daily business are his recollections of his mother’s scarves, the duchess of Windsor’s garment bags (pale blue), and other ephemera.
There’s much discussion of the mechanics of style—the hidden hems and seams that help create the illusion of elegance. After an hour of organdy flounces and Mao collars, even devoted fashionistas may find their eyes glazing over. But then it’s over, almost too quickly—a dream of beauty as fragile as any lost utopia.