As portrayed in the new biopic, “Yves Saint Laurent,” the influential French designer, who died in 2008, is hard to like. It’s nearly impossible to feel sympathy for him. Indeed, it’s a struggle to resist the urge to pummel him, or at least the actor playing him (Pierre Niney), out of pure exasperation. But after 106 minutes spent watching the film version of the man gorge on drugs, sex and petulance — some of it driven by temperament, some, sadly, by mental illness — you have a better appreciation of his astonishing creativity during his heyday and a greater understanding of what the brand stands for today.
Saint Laurent was without question a deeply troubled man. The exact nature of his ills were both obvious and inscrutable. He was an abuser of drugs and alcohol and a painfully shy, gay man wrestling with psychological demons. He was gripped by the insecurities so common to the creative process and bloated with the hubris that comes from the stubborn certainty in one’s own vision. He was also struggling with mental illness. In the film, Saint Laurent comes across as aggravating, self-absorbed, needy, arrogant, irritable and mean.
The man who witnessed this all in horrifying close-up, who enabled some of it and, perhaps, saved Saint Laurent from being even more of a wreck, was his business partner and lover Pierre Berge.
The film tells their personal story — the constant shift from venomous love and passionate anger to melancholy devotion — as well as their professional one. Saint Laurent had an almost sixth sense for the kinds of cultural shifts that would change the way in which women engaged with the world and Berge (played by Guillaume Gallienne) was a bulldog of a businessman with the heart of an aesthete.
The film, directed by Jalil Lespert, covers the period from 1958, just after Saint Laurent’s explosive debut as the 21-years-old creative director of Christian Dior. He was thrust into that role after the death of the house’s namesake. Dior was France’s most important fashion house — creatively, commercially and within the national psyche. Such a sudden elevation would have thrown virtually anyone off balance, but Saint Laurent was not very well grounded to begin with. The film follows him as he founds his own house, with the aid of Berge in 1962, through 1976 when he debuted a critically acclaimed collection inspired by the Ballet Russes.
Along the way, Saint Laurent designed his much-beloved Mondrian collection which took the two-dimensional paintings of the Dutch artist and re-imagined them as three-dimensional shifts. He created le smoking, the sexually provocative women’s tuxedo. And he collected a close group of compatriots with whom he regularly caroused. They all indulged in the debauchery the 1960s and ’70s had to offer. But Saint Laurent gorged.
Berge is the tether that keeps Saint Laurent from drowning in dysfunction. He is a controlling presence in Saint Laurent’s spiraling life, in part, because the designer asked him to be. Saint Laurent knew he needed constraints and protection. Berge provided it, shielding him from the press and sometimes locking him away from the bad influence — but also the care — of friends. The two men are so intertwined that they simultaneously supported and suffocated each other.
“Yves Saint Laurent” is one of two upcoming films on the designer. This one has the support of Berge and the Fondation Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent, which is the repository for the designer’s archives. So yes, the actors in this film are very, very well-dressed.
But the clothes are not stars. There are a host of scenes inside the Saint Laurent atelier that depict the designer at work. And before this film, there were documentaries that reverentially explored Saint Laurent’s artistic process. They were stultifying.
More instructive than watching Saint Laurent sketch or drape fabric, are the scenes of him with friends such as Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Catroux, the tales of his sexual encounters and the sight of him drunkenly stumbling down the steps of a nightclub and into bull’s eye of waiting paparazzi. Those scenes explain the urgency, sex appeal and fearless recklessness in his work. Saint Laurent was informed by the world whirling outside his window, especially the one that unwound after dark. His connection to an indulgent, thoughtless, provocative youth is made plain, along with how deeply it was embedded in his personality.
The sight of his drunken revelry makes it easier to reconcile the Saint Laurent of the later years — a portly, off-balance older gentleman in a gray business suit known for dressing Catherine Deneuve — with the dazzlingly talented young man who once posed naked looking like a rock star Jesus.
After the company was purchased by Gucci Group — now Kering — in 1999, it was helmed by Tom Ford and later, Stefano Pilati. Berge was displeased with the way both men carried forth the house’s legacy, even though Ford and Pilati each brought sophistication and, in varying degrees, sex appeal to their work. In an interview not so long ago, Berge noted that Saint Laurent hated words like chic and elegant; it was not how he wanted his clothes described. Elegance suggested adherence to protocol and tradition. And above all, Saint Laurent was interested in surging forward, pressing against the boundaries.
Now the house is under the creative control of Hedi Slimane, who counts Berge as a fan. Slimane’s approach has been disruptive within fashion: self-conscious in its subversiveness, inspired by the energy of underground musicians, artists and the hormonal rapaciousness of the young.
Slimane is a slight man with pleading eyes and hair like a rooster’s comb. He has put up a wall between himself and the media, one that is only occasionally breached. The clothes often look as though they were created specifically for the kind of debauched life that Saint Laurent himself lived.
Today, Saint Laurent’s original work looks elegant — that dreadful, stodgy word — in part because it has become such an important part of the fashion vernacular that it now define it. The work that Slimane does under the auspices of what is now simply called Saint Laurent Paris, speaks of popular culture’s demi-monde. While Miley Cyrus is called crass, Lindsay Lohan is rebuked for over-indulgence and Kim Kardashian derided for living the most intimate aspects of her life in full view of the public, they are the contemporary incarnations of the Saint Laurent ethos. For better or worse, Slimane understands that.
Saint Laurent was part of a group that prowled the night and broke rules. They were a bit scandalous. To be part of their world was both intoxicating and off-putting. Friendships began because Saint Laurent admired a girl’s jewelry or her sense of style. There’s no warmth in that. Lespert scrubbed the gloss off the Saint Laurent myth. It is akin to what Slimane has done with the brand. He has put it back into smoke-filled lounges where the din of the music leaves the eardrums throbbing, hair reeking of smoke and clothes damp with sweat and seduction.
The contemporary collections don’t have the prescience of the work by the house’s namesake. But they do have a similar room-spinning energy. A mood of petulance and arrogance. They are very Saint Laurent. And equally difficult to like.
“Yves Saint Laurent” opens Friday in D.C. at Landmark E Street Cinema.