Even though Yves Saint Laurent began his career working at the House of Dior, he was more of the successor to Chanel in the universe of French fashion, updated for the swinging ’60s and indulgent ’70s with elegance that was also wearable comfort. (“Chanel freed women; I empowered them,” he famously said). He is credited with modernizing the smoking jacket/tuxedo look (especially for women) — a fact DIFFA used as a theme for several of its own recent collections — and when fashion was in freefall, he was the most consistently praised designer in the world.
You’ll learn virtually none of that, though, from watching Saint Laurent, which is surprising considering that the film runs a hefty two-and-a-half hours … even more so when you consider the vast majority of the film takes place during his heyday (and the rest in retrospect late in life, from a position of authority and perspective). Where is the exposition that puts YSL in context, both as a man and a brand? In short, not much. Maybe Saint Laurent, which is in French and a huge hit already in France, assumes its audience already knows the broad strokes about the man, the way Spielberg’s Lincoln doesn’t tell us much about the Great Emancipator’s humble beginnings in a log cabin. But the time commitment begs that it share more than it does.
One problem is that the director, Bertrand Bonello, doesn’t seem to know what kind of film he’s making: It is like Blow, a drug-fueled Virgilian decent into the hell of addiction? Is it intended to be like Coco Before Chanel, a fashion biopic, or even Valentino: The Last Emperor, a documentary about a moment in time presented here as a docudrama? Is it a boardroom drama about the business of fashion? Or perhaps he’s making a Parisian version of Tales of the City, as it graphically (lots of full-frontal!) shows YSL’s sex life, from his non-exclusive relationship with business partner Pierre Berge (Jeremie Renier) to his full-on sex parties? I still can’t tell.
And yet, Saint Laurent isn’t bad, just disappointing. (Frankly, the spate of fashion-centered films in the last few years is awash in bad biopic contrasted to excellent documentaries). Gaspard Ulliel, as Yves, does a compelling job portraying the designer, who suffers from creative block but struggles through. (He’s also quite easy on the eyes). It’s a strong, intense performance that is disserved by scenes that drag along pointlessly. You get a better sense for fashion from Iris (at the Magnolia) and Dior and I (at the Angelika).
Opens Friday at Magnolia.