Due to sheer coincidence, two separate biopics of legendary fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent were produced in France back in 2014. The other biopic, the experimental Saint Laurent from cult arthouse filmmaker Bertrand Bonello, was chosen as France’s submission for that year’s Best Foreign Language film Oscar – however, its release was pipped to the post by Yves Saint Laurent, a straightforward biopic that managed to garner equal critical acclaim for different reasons. Over in France, the films were placed head to head at the Cesar Awards (known internationally as “the French Oscars”), where actor Piere Niney’s portrayal of the fashion icon took home the Best Actor trophy, in a category where both depictions of the designer were nominated.
The performances from the entire ensemble cast are what help elevate director Jalil Lespert’s biopic; Lespert aims to document the highs and lows of the fashion designer’s personal and professional lives between the late fifties and mid-seventies, and its the strengths of the performances that make covering such a sizeable time period feel palatable. Niney was only in his mid twenties when he starred in this role, yet his acutely observed performance manages to explore the flawed human character behind the icon – and make his decades spanning character arc feel believable as a result. Although Niney was the most awarded performer in the film, equal credit has to be given to the rest of the cast, for making their portrayals of well known figures within the fashion industry feel like more than just mere caricatures.
As Yves Saint Laurent co-founder Pierre Berge, Guillaume Gallienne has the same impossible task as Niney – to make a character who often acts irrationally and out of spite feel empathetic. If anything, this is the harder role of the two leads; Yves Saint Laurent’s brief stint in a psychiatric hospital makes his impulsive actions easier to rationalise, whereas Berge’s crippling jealousy is a lot less easier to forgive. He may be the more interesting character in the film, and the exploration of their fracturing relationship is a lot more engrossing then any number of high class catwalk showcases the film cares to throw at us.
Which isn’t to say that the depictions of the company’s classic catalogue showcases aren’t deserving of their place within the film. The focus may be squarely on the ensemble cast at all times, but Jalil Lespert still visually recaptures the spirit of the company in its boundary pushing early years, when it influenced various revolutionary fashion styles across the western world. The real Pierre Berge was even brought in as a consultant, to help get the details of various Yves Saint Laurent fashion shows as accurate as possible – and it’s hard to deny the sheer style thrown on screen in these moments. The partnership behind these eclectic costume designs may be more engrossing than the catwalk sequences themselves, but this doesn’t disregard Lespert’s eye for detail, and ability to recapture the early spirit of the fashion house in his meticulously designed recreations.
Yves Saint Laurent may have suffered from being one of two separate biopics about the fashion icon, and the more narratively straightforward of the pair. Luckily, the strengths of the performances help make for an entertaining, engaging drama, that gets under the skin of the demons that haunted one of the most famous names in fashion history.