Today too many only know the word couture by way of the two girls from the valley who founded a line of velour lounge clothes called Juicy Couture. Today too many go out to dinner in the same tight black leggings they wear to the gym or did yoga in. Dressing up means Halloween or a funeral. At the risk of dating myself, I confess that when I was a very young girl I would overhear the ladies in the salon ask, “What are you wearing on the airplane?” Even travel meant presentation – one’s class and style was a worthy cause for looking one’s best.
Today comfort is king, only rare occasions warrant the effort it takes to dress up, which brings us to Yves Saint Laurent, the genius assistant of Christian Dior, who took over the The House of Dior at the vulnerable and fierce age of 23.
Jalil Lespert’s economical biopic chronicles the superstardom of the French designer. It is a sweeping compassionate exposition on the era in which formality was de rigueur. Encompassing Parisian sensibilities and aesthetics and featuring the dramatized likes of the young Karl Lagerfeld and Andy Warhol, YSL is an insider’s look into the world of haute couture, from the drawing board to runway, and the lives of the beau monde who frequented it.
Framed by the recollections of his lover/business partner and lifetime devoted caretaker, Pierre Berge (Guillaume Gallienne), YSL remains somewhat detached from its subject even as it explores Yves’ inner life, his homosexuality, the haphazard affairs with sex and substances, and the inevitable complications. Thus, it’s with an attitude of sympathy that YSL’s three screenwriters carefully cover the many sides of Yves: as a luminary designer, as an obsessive workaholic, and as a manic-depressive drug addict.
People may wonder why a man with everything seemed so unhappy. Yet, the progression from teetotaling to sex clubs and cocaine lines is clearly handled in this biopic, as we see a boy who “missed his youth” become inundated by the baggage of experiencing success so very early on in life.
The acting is captivating, beautiful, and believable. Pierre Niney’s magnificent portrayal as Yves Saint Laurent complements Guillaume Gallienne’s impeccable performance as “the love of his life,” while Charlotte Le Bon, the gorgeous model/best friend provides personal sensitivity to the emotional truth of this period.
Written by Jacques Fieschi, Marie-Pierre Huster, and Jalil Lespert, the film brings out the curtly seriousness of its characters. When the titular character speaks too modestly in an interview, his lover interrupts, whispering, “It’s better to be silent than talk bullshit.” Consequently, Yves excuses himself, and the reporters are visibly impressed. Sometimes more is said without words. In a beautiful scene, the pursuing Pierre walks over to Yves, sunbathing on a diving board. Pierre sits down, Yves smiles, takes off his own sunglasses, and dives into the pool without uttering a word.
From the beauty of Paris on the outside to the meticulous décor on the inside, Lespert’s mise-en-scène indicates great attention to detail. Like a model switching outfits, YSL seamlessly transitions periods and settings – from countryside to gay sex clubs, from the party scenes in Marrakesh to the dark alleys of Paris. Jalil Lespert maintains a graceful flow complemented by layered dissolves and vibrant montages, punctuated by the authentic vintage designs credited to Yves (77 of which were loaned by the real Pierre Berge).
Simply put, the most remarkable aspect of this film is the authentic history we get to see, as such clothing collections may never grace the runway again! The do-or-die task of presenting fresh designs every Fall and Spring are befittingly depicted in YSL, capped off by poignantly spectacular montages, the crown jewels of a film that focuses on the craft of couture. It is the runway of a bygone era in which in-house fashion shows were exclusive and contained, hardly hubs for cacophony, bombastic celebrities and other do-nothings we see at today.
Tempering decadence with humanity, YSL is a reverential portrait of its namesake, the industry, and world Yves embodied.
Carrie White is the best-selling author of Upper Cut: Highlights of My Hollywood Life. She tweets @carriewhitehair.
Alec Julian is a Los Angeles based writer. Follow him @PaparazziPorn.