Yves Saint Laurent, the fashion maven whose career stretched across nearly half a century, certainly lived an interesting life. You don't need to look much further than the movies for proof of his appeal: Pierre Thoretton's 2010 "L'Amour Fou" explored the ups and downs of his career, while Jalil Lespert's biopic "Yves Saint Laurent" opens Wednesday in New York. Then there's "Saint Laurent," another take on the Dior designer from French director Bertrand Bonello, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year and opens in the fall.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that so many people are interested in this character's fascinating accomplishments. But while fashion films are often beautiful subjects, when it comes to biopics of designers, they often fall short.
The Basic Biopic Trap
I find that most "lives of the artists" films — whether they're narrative features or documentaries — often provide the same amount of insight into the life of the subject as a Wikipedia entry. If I want to know about the life of a designer, painter, author, or athlete, I'd rather read a memoir or a biography, where the author can go into depth and make connections. Filmmakers generally can't shoehorn a famous person's entire life (or even just the highlights) into two hours and get at the individual's essence. (Exception to the rule: "Vito," which nimbly condensed Michael Schiavi's unreadable and overwritten bio of Vito Russo into 90 minutes. I maintain that bad books make great films.)
Lespert's "Yves Saint Laurent" falls into the basic biopic trap because it covers the key moments of the designer's life and work — and nothing much beyond that. It unspools like a very conventional story, without thoughtful, reflective scenes that allow viewers to create their own impressions about why the subject behaves a certain way. Lespert is so busy telling not showing that the deep connection to the subject is almost impossible.
In the film, Yves (Pierre Niney) articulates his dream of wanting to be a designer as a young man. He gets a leg up when he takes on a key role at Dior. He faces some adversity in his career. He finds some success, and is legitimized. Meanwhile, he falls in love, and encounters professional and personal setbacks before triumphing one more time before his death. Everything unfolds in a glossy, superficial manner.
Yes, the clothes in "Yves Saint Laurent" are gorgeous, but the problem is that the film is mostly skin-deep. Lespert curiously uses Pierre Bergé's comments to narrate the story, a cheat of a conceit — and not just because the YSL doc, "L'Amour Fou" used a similar convention. Given how "Yves Saint Laurent” presents the relationship between the lovers (as a romance than turned into a business partnership), it doesn't make sense that Bergé should narrate Laurent’s life story simply when it suits the film. Voice-overs are often narrative crutches for filmmakers to tell, not show, but throughout "Yves Saint Laurent," the character talks about what he feels or thinks but viewers rarely get the chance to feel or think.
Lespert's approach waters down an interesting subject. It's as if the director and Niney were being so careful about presenting Laurent respectfully (even with the inclusion of episodes depicting his alcoholism, affairs, and other bad behaviors) that they removed any passion from the story. Niney gives a polite, mannered performance in what is essentially a polite, mannered film.
When In Doubt, Do It as a Doc
If "L'Amour Fou" does a better job of capturing the bond between Laurent and Bergé, it is because it focuses on the de-accessioning of the couple's possessions as a way into their lives.
Taking a slice-of-a-life approach to biopics, as "L'Amour Fou" does, usually yields the best results. Thoretton's documentary actually suffers a bit when it deviates from this focused approach, and presents the backstory of the designer's life and work as well as the social, cultural, and political elements of the era, something else Lespert borrows for his "Yves Saint Laurent."
When fashion films emphasize the clothes, over the man who makes them, they are stunning. Documentaries "Dior and I" and edited "Valentino: The Last Emperor" both show a designer at work. The approach of each film allows viewers to observe and learn. They provide the best lesson on how to make a film about a fashion designer.
Better Biopic Approaches
Good biopics generally highlight specific time periods in their subjects’ lives. Last year’s "Renoir" gave viewers a glimpse of the artist late in life where the focus is on less on the artist's craft — we know he can paint! — and more on how he responded to the fame he achieved. Likewise, “Big Sur” bested all other Kerouac films for this Beat-loving viewer for the same reason: it showed how the author grappled with the aftermath of his fame, which is far more revealing than watching him achieve it. (Jean-Marc Barr also gave a knockout performance).
Contrast these portraits to more ambitious biopics, such as Ed Harris' "Pollock," where audience members may cringe every time Pollock gets behind the wheel. (One half expects a member of the audience to scream at Jennifer Connelly: "Don’t let him drive!") Then there's the ill-fated "Sylvia," which denied viewers the "money shot" of seeing Gwyneth Paltrow's head in the oven.
Filmmakers really do need to find a way to make the lives of famous creatives more exciting to watch. A by-the-numbers approach can work fine in a feel-good Hollywood film, like the entertaining, if corny, inspirational sports biopic "42." And independent filmmakers can be creative. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman certainly were in their excellent film, "Howl," where Allen Ginsberg's life story unfolds in four strands that mixed interviews, animation, and re-enactments to focus on multiple aspects of his life, work, legal drama, and personal thoughts.
Lespert's "Yves Saint Laurent" does manage to be inspirational and creative at times. It shows the designer's single-mindedness in his quest to make clothes, and why he took that route. The root of his passion is clear, and certain scenes illustrate him sketching and thinking about clothes well enough. The film also presents the clothes in various fashion shows, and these sequences illustrate Laurent's excitement as his work is seen for the first time. It's too bad "Yves Saint Laurent" doesn't always provide audiences with the same measure of enjoyment.