You’ve seen the logo, now meet the man. Or at least the times he lived in and epitomized. Jalil Lespert’s biopic of the seminal designer Yves Saint Laurent (who died in 2008) succeeds better at evincing the latter — the hedonistic panache and exuberant look of the late ’50s to’70s — than it does at capturing the former. But since Saint Laurent’s fashions shaped and embody that era as much many other cultural influences, and since, judging from this film, his work defined his life, perhaps the man and his times were one and the same. Frustratingly elusive and seductively louche, Lespert’s “Yves” probes a cryptic myth and a fragile soul, penetrating neither, but conjuring up a taste of Saint Laurent’s suffering, genius and style.
Like the superficial 2010 Pierre Thoretton documentary “L’amour fou,” “Yves” tells the story from the point of view of Pierre Bergé (a stolid Guillaume Gallienne), Saint Laurent’s long-suffering companion and manager. As Bergé supervises the 2009 auction of his and Saint Laurent’s shared art collection, he looks back on their lives together, offering a wry, rueful, and unobtrusive voiceover narration.
The two make their first erotic connection shortly after the 21-year-old Saint Laurent (Pierre Niney) succeeds Christian Dior as head of the late legend’s fashion house in 1958. After a pool scene reminiscent of a David Hockney painting, the pair gambol along the banks of the Seine, exultant and brimming with desire and potential. Then history intrudes — Saint Laurent, who had been born in French colonial Oran, is drafted to fight in the Algerian war. He suffers a nervous breakdown, is diagnosed with manic-depression, and Bergé takes over the practical aspects of his lover’s career. “You have the talent,” he tells him. “I’ll do the rest.” Co-dependent lover, nursemaid, demanding taskmaster, and enabler, he’s much abused and cheated on, but still has the spine to strike back at Saint Laurent with an infidelity of diabolical ruthlessness.
Meanwhile, the talent part proved at times more than Saint Laurent could handle, especially in the ’70s when he had to turn out four shows a year with the expectation of each surpassing the last. Some might find the detailing of these shows as repetitious, but they also provide a jolt of recognition as now archetypal fashion lines are seen as if for the first time.
Otherwise, the years pass much as you’d expect from the point of view of a mind disordered by intoxicants, mental illness, and exhausting spurts of brilliant creativity; they are a kaleidoscopic blur of faces, ecstasy, despair, and rage interrupted now and then by Bergé’s narrative. Alternately meek and tyrannical, repressed and Dionysian, Niney’s Saint Laurent remains both empathetic and obscure. As ubiquitous as his initials may be, YSL is a man who never fit in.