The film begins towards the end of the 1950s (via the present day introduction of Bergé recounting his ex-lover’s life) which finds the reserved and meek Yves growing up in the blissful surroundings of Oran, French Algeria. It’s not long before he’s rising up the ranks as Christian Dior’s assistant and beginning a fraught, if initially loving and supportive, relationship with Bergé, an older French businessman who would later co-build Yves’ couture house.
We are witness to the rapid success of the designer, his subsequent legal wrangles with his old employer, and the stress and pressure he’s put under in creating his exquisite and eye-catching collection. Jealousy and moments of betrayal drive a wedge between the two lovers and threaten to be Yves’ undoing. As the decades pass, the designer’s increasing dependence on alcohol and drugs also becomes a contributing factor to his self-destructive tendencies.
All the above resembles a series of sumptuous YSL ads, strung together to form a feature-length narrative (a Marrakech-set holiday retreat mid-way through is the worst culprit) and while the film glides along with an undeniable elegance and boldness, but it never really nails what really made the subject tick as an artist. We see Yves as he sketches away at his marvellous designs, yet we’re never privy to where they came from. Maybe that enigmatic approach was a deliberate construct by the film’s makers, but it only adds to the surface feel of the story.
French actor-turned-director Jalil Lespert does have a considerable knack of crafting some visually-arresting sequences throughout, particularly during Yves at his most hedonistic in the latter part of the 60s, but his biggest asset is his two leads. Gallienne adds a much needed pathos and humanity to the film, while the 24 year-old Niney does a superb job of playing the designer throughout the decades of his long career – from a young and effete prodigy, profoundly shy of the spotlight, to that older, jaded figure. Its seldom you see an actor straddle the decades as successfully as Niney does here.
While Yves Saint Laurent will undoubtedly chime with the fashionista crowd, it’s not quite riveting enough to warrant crossover appeal. Admittedly, there are worse things in life than to be in the company of beautiful-looking people (in equally gorgeous locales and landscapes) for 90 or so minutes. It’s just a shame there isn’t much substance lurking amongst the copious lashings of style.