J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Yves Saint Laurent: Bio-Pic Number #1

He was the first fashion designer to be given his own exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was recently the subject of a comprehensive retrospective at the Denver Art Museum. However, Yves Saint Laurent’s did not always act in a manner appropriate for such hallowed institutions. Jalil Lespert gets the first crack at dramatizing Saint Laurent’s storied career and chaotic private life with Yves Saint Laurent (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Lespert’s treatment reaches international audiences before Bertrand Bonello’s even more simply titled Saint Laurent (sort of like the competing Ip Man films), but they are both trailing Pierre Thoretton’s should-have-been-better documentary, L’Amour fou. Like Thoretton, Lespert set sail with the blessing of Saint Laurent’s longtime life partner, business fixer, and co-collector Pierre Bergé. Ironically, this seems to have given Lespert considerable license to explore some of the darker corners of the designer’s psyche.

We meet Saint Laurent as an earnest young French Algerian, who is too delicate for a settler’s life, but still considers Algiers as French as the Champs-Elysees. Soon he relocates to Paris, working his way up the design ranks at the house of Dior. When it is time for Saint Laurent to strike out on his own, it will be Bergé who raises the necessary funds. As the responsible one, Bergé will also patch Saint Laurent together after his various breakdowns. Yet, despite his efforts, keeping Saint Laurent away from the temptations of fast living becomes a full time losing battle.

While Lespert offers up plenty of Saint Laurent’s dark nights of the soul, he still knows what most patrons want from a movie like this: pretty clothes and pretty people. Thanks to the YSL archive and Charlotte Le Bon appearing as Saint Laurent’s former favorite model Victoire Doutrelaeu, Lespert’s film has plenty of both. In fact, Le Bon adds a wonderfully melodramatic edge to the proceedings.

Laura Smet is also nicely decorative as Doutreleau’s replacement, Loulou de la Falaise, but she is just overwhelmed by the psychedelic trappings of the late 1960s-early 1970s era. Frankly, the same largely applies to Lespert’s ostensive lead, the feather-light and paper-thin Pierre Niney (of the Comédie Française). Perhaps by design, his Saint Laurent is largely a cipher, unto which everyone else projects the YSL they need or want.

Somewhat logically given Bergé’s support, Saint Laurent’s long suffering partner emerges as the emotional center and dramatic anchor of Lespert’s bio-pic. Guillaume Gallienne (also of the Comédie Française) is terrific balancing the YSL CEO’s jealousy and wounded pride, as well as resoluteness and maturity. It really is Bergé’s film and Gallienne carries it, accordingly. In fact, you have to give the real life Bergé credit for having the guts to throw China’s human rights record back in its face when they demanded the return of two Winter Palace bronzes he put up for auction as part of the collection he amassed with Saint Laurent.

There is plenty of scandal and heartache in Lespert’s YSL, but it is a rather pleasant viewing experience thanks to his light touch and spritely pace. Ibrahim Maalouf’s upbeat soundtrack, stylishly mixing elements of jazz and 1960s pop also provides a key assist, as well as one of the film’s most accomplished creative collaborators, Italian alto and tenor saxophonist Stefano di Battista. It all looks and sounds great, which its subjects would most certainly appreciate. Recommended for fans of high fashion and fashionable House of Eliott-style drama, Yves Saint Laurent (the first one) opens this Wednesday (6/25) at New York’s Film Forum.

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