Yves Saint Laurent, as portrayed in the French biopic bearing his name, comes across as two people. There was Yves before the drugs: Born in Algeria, he was a soft-spoken, painfully shy prodigy who took over the Dior fashion house while he was still in his 20s. And then there was the more uninhibited Yves, a philanderer who snorted cocaine, went out dancing and alienated his closest friends and longtime lover.
Neither of these characters is particularly compelling to watch, especially when the plot follows such a familiar path. A genius battles his demons and comes out the other side.
It is perhaps smart that director Jalil Lespert lets the story be told by the designer’s more likable other half, Pierre Bergé (played by Guillaume Gallienne), a businessman who turns out to be the unexpected hero of “Yves Saint Laurent.” Pierre narrates as if he’s reading a posthumous love letter to the designer (played by Pierre Niney), who died in 2008 after popularizing the Mondrian dress, tuxedoes for women and high-end ready-to-wear clothing.
Pierre is steadfast in his support of his companion. After Yves has an episode that lands him in a mental hospital, he is fired from Dior. No matter: Pierre makes sure Yves is compensated for his unceremonious termination and helps raise the funds so that Yves can start his own fashion house. From there, the two become business partners, even as their romantic relationship falters.
Yves suffered from manic depression and addiction problems, and the movie conveys this with an atmosphere that is solemn to the point of being dour. Even the great triumphs seem to remain under a heavy cloud. When one of Yves’s muses, while languishing around a pool with a group of partyers, playfully interrogates him about his favorite things, he responds shyly and awkwardly. Even his happiness feels tempered by a fear of opening up.
The result is a movie that may be true to the designer’s life, as it’s based on a biography by Laurence Benaïm. But it isn’t particularly enjoyable or insightful. Sometimes morose geniuses can be fascinatingly complicated or bewitchingly tortured, but Yves consistently comes across as simply sullen. Even Pierre admits that the designer was happy only twice a year — during the spring and fall fashion show seasons.
The film is artfully shot with eye candy galore: sumptuous dresses, beautiful people and scenes from Pierre and Yves’s time in Morocco. But for all its visual stimulation, the story does little to awaken emotions. When he wasn’t silent, Yves Saint Laurent could be cruel and selfish. He may have been a genius, but if he was at all likable, this movie doesn’t show it.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains sex, nudity and drug use. In French with subtitles.