YSL biopic fashions a story of glorious excess

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Fashion runs on adrenaline. It is fueled by a fast-paced process of creation, curation and critique. And while that still holds true in the 21st century, this indication of searing progress was at its peak during the 1970s in the glimmering city of Paris, with the notorious Yves Saint Laurent at its helm.

Director Jalil Lespert’s French-language biopic “Yves Saint Laurent” chronicles the Algerian fashion designer’s ascent to the throne at the House of Dior and his ultimate creation of a new fashion empire under his own name — a bold move that came with as many dazzling milestones in fashion history as fatal repercussions.

Saint Laurent’s (Pierre Niney) story is well-known for those versed in French fashion. Even as a young boy, Saint Laurent was drawn to feminine beauty and elegance, sketching dress designs in his quaint childhood bedroom in Oran, Algeria. At the ripe age of 17, Saint Laurent was published by director Michel De Brunhoff in French Vogue. He became assistant to legendary designer Christian Dior for a period, ultimately heading the powerful company’s designs as art director upon the death of Dior in 1957. He won a Neiman Marcus Oscar award for his Ligne Trapeze clothing line, and broke boundaries with his infamous le smoking tuxedo suit for women and Piet Mondrian-inspired shift dresses.

But the film does not solely go into these public details about the exterior facade of Saint Laurent. It does more than scratch the surface of who the man was as a designer. “Yves Saint Laurent” delves into the intricacies of Saint Laurent’s interior — not the man the world saw him as, but the man he actually was.

Narrated by lover and business partner Pierre Berge (Guillaume Gallienne), the film travels back and forth between present-day — where Berge has been left in the wake of Saint Laurent’s death in 2008 — and Saint Laurent’s tumultuous life. Berge talks to the audience at times. At other times he speaks in apostrophe — directly to the deceased YSL. Though this inconsistency provides a rocky, rather than uniform, approach to the film’s narration, the beautiful explosion of ball gowns, night clubs and sparkles makes up for it.

Whirls of Moroccan drug-infused desert fantasies, rooftop champagne brunches overlooking the Arc de Triomphe and sultry, mysterious fashion exposés are reason enough for a “Yves Saint Laurent” viewing. There is something to be said about the brilliance with which Lespert paints the French 1970s scene. Visionaries and muses alike casually grace the screen: Karl Lagerfeld (Nikolai Kinski) makes a few appearances at fashion events and clubs; the “quintessential Rive Gauche haute bohémienne” Loulou de la Falaise (Laura Smet), who would become an accessories designer for YSL, is featured in the latter half of the film. And of course Betty Catroux (Marie de Villepin), Chanel model and Saint Laurent’s very own muse, flits along with the posse in a cloud of fashionable smoke.

As one would expect, there is a layer beneath all the bubbly and glitter. Saint Laurent’s cocaine dependence, alcoholism and deteriorating health are given just as much screen time as the glitz and glamor. In one scene, the designer can barely stand up and walk down the runway after his show to receive his celebratory congratulations and applause.

“Yves Saint Laurent” may be a film that relies heavily on a conventional this-then-that trajectory, but in no way does this render the film dull. Awash in dazzling lights and vivacious colors, the movie transports the viewer to the front row at a YSL fashion show, showcasing not only the exquisitely-made clothes, but also the physical, mental and emotional capacity necessary to make those very clothes.

With beautiful bows, sumptuous sashes and fabulous frocks, the film seems to value elegance slightly over substance. One would only imagine that Mr. Yves Saint Laurent himself would approve.

“Yves Saint Laurent” is playing at Shattuck Cinema. 

Addy Bhasin is the assistant arts editor. Contact her at [email protected].