If the clothes of Yves Saint Laurent were groundbreaking, the designer’s mystique was as subtle as the curve of an invisibly molded sleeve. Those who have picked up just a little Saint Laurent lore may know about his beginnings at the House of Dior in the late 1950s, and his subsequent firing, in 1960, as he lay in a French military hospital after suffering a post-conscription nervous breakdown. With the help of Pierre Bergé — played here by Guillaume Gallienne — his partner in both life (until 1980) and in business (until the designer’s death in 2008), he launched his own house and forever changed the way women dress. He popularized the tuxedo as a garment for modern women; he brought couture vision to the more democratic world of ready-to-wear. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, he took a lot of pills and dallied with the wrong boys. Until his death, he had a series of French bulldogs, all named Moujik, a parade of wagging rumps and snuffling noses that bore witness to the creation of some of the most supple, unassumingly elegant clothes of the 20th century.
But if that thumbnail sketch hits a few of the highs, mids, and lows, it still doesn’t tell you much about the soft-spoken, elusive man who put women in triangle-shaped dresses inspired by Mondrian paintings and designed a whole collection around a fairy-tale fantasy of the Ballets Russes. Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent tries to sweep the evanescent butterfly Yves into its net: The movie isn’t enough, but it’s something. Pierre Niney, starring as the fragile dauphin in horn rims, cuts a slender, cursive figure; his posture is just slightly stooped, as if the weight of genius really does rest heavily on his shoulders. He doesn’t seem to be so much impersonating Saint Laurent — as we’ve seen him in documentaries like Pierre Thoretton’s touching L’Amour Fou, or in YouTube footage of the designer’s 2002 retirement speech — as capturing a waft of his presence. When this Saint Laurent speaks, particularly to a small clutch of lady journalists, his voice is a desiccated whisper. But when he lashes out at the far more practical, preternaturally stable Bergé, who’s doing his best to keep the designer grounded and productive, he’s as simultaneously soft and harsh as a serpent’s hiss. Niney’s performance captures the dual playing-card faces that Saint Laurent showed to the world: He could be extraordinarily kind, but could also cut like a pair of shears.
Yves Saint Laurent is a classically styled biopic; to that end, Lespert serves up all the expected shots of the designer scrutinizing and delighting in the human form, male and female alike. He flirts ardently, though with a conspicuous lack of sexual passion, with his favorite house model, a pouty, button-eyed beauty named Victoire (Charlotte Le Bon) — the affection between the two incites so much jealousy in Bergé that he lashes out with his own surprisingly aggressive brand of sexual revenge. Saint Laurent’s two chief muses of the ’60s and ’70s, the leggy blonde Betty Catroux (Marie de Villepin) and the exotic wood sprite Loulou de la Falaise (Laura Smet), slink and flutter, respectively, in the movie’s margins, like ornamental page decorations. And when Saint Laurent’s louche bad-boy lover, Jacques de Bascher (Xavier Lafitte), leads the impressionable designer too far down the wrong path, Bergé responds like a cross between a mother hen and a flame-breathing dragon. Gallienne’s face shows the cost of being Saint Laurent’s eternal financial and emotional caretaker: At first, it’s that of a boyishly enthusiastic businessman. Later, it more closely resembles that of an exhausted wartime medic. As Bergé once said of his partner and erstwhile lover, “He was born with a nervous breakdown.”
If Bergé figures largely, possibly excessively, in this telling, there are some good reasons: For one thing, the real-life Pierre Bergé has authorized the film; he didn’t grant the same honor to the other yet-to-be-released Saint Laurent biopic, Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, which premiered in Cannes in May. But while I’ve heard some vague accusations along the lines of “too much Bergé” hurled at Lespert’s film, it probably has just the right amount of Bergé. Because you can’t tell the story of Yves Saint Laurent without attempting to plumb the admittedly more prosaic mystery of his right-hand guy. Even if it’s essentially Saint Laurent’s touch you see on the clothes — and they’re resplendent here, particularly in a re-creation of the Ballets Russes presentation, a sigh-worthy procession of tissue-soft chiffon blouses and floaty, gilt-edged peasant skirts — Bergé’s mark is there too, in every franc and centime he counted so Saint Laurent wouldn’t have to. Yves Saint Laurent gives us some idea of what it cost to be Yves Saint Laurent. But it also makes us feel for the guy who wasn’t ashamed to leave his fingerprints on the money.