Mirror, Mirror: Film focuses on YSL the man behind the fashion house

Pierre Niney (left) stars as Yves Saint Laurent in the new film about the designer's life from the 1950s to the mid-1970s.
Pierre Niney (left) stars as Yves Saint Laurent in the new film about the designer's life from the 1950s to the mid-1970s. (Weinstein Co.)
Posted: July 04, 2014

While the new French biopic Yves Saint Laurent shows how the designer's angst fueled his work - especially those iconic A-line dresses inspired by Piet Mondrian's paintings - the impact of his work is not the focus of the movie.

Director Jalil Lespert chose instead to explore Saint Laurent's mental issues, his drug and alcohol abuse, and the tumultuous relationship with business partner and lover Pierre Bergé. It makes for a film that is intense, enjoyable, and fast-paced, filled with smashed vases, seductive looks, and sex scenes that are more than implied.

Still, the movie, which opens Friday at the Ritz Bourse, is about one of the world's most influential women's-wear designers, so it would have been nice if audiences were shown how important his contributions were to their wardrobes - more than just mentions in hurried montages and hasty voice-overs.

Saint Laurent revolutionized the way women dressed by expanding their closets beyond acceptable Chanel and Dior suits. He ushered in the "mod look" in 1965 with that Mondrian dress, and introduced belted safari jackets, leather pants (on people other than bikers), the tuxedo for women nicknamed "Le Smoking," and peasant blouses, which was the start of the boho chic movement, all over the course of his roughly 50-year career.

He liked to say that haute couture was dead, and he opened Rivé Gauche to sell his ready-to-wear line, what would become the precursor to the designer specialty store.

Saint Laurent also was among the first designers who did more than just sprinkle one or two "exotic" black models on his runway. He employed black women of all looks, from sultry to girl-next-door, to model his collections.

"I wanted to make a film for the general public and not for fashion historians," Lespert recently told me through an interpreter. "It was more important to talk about the private life of Yves Saint Laurent that was not well known."

That he did.

Yves Saint Laurent is the third movie about Saint Laurent since he died from brain cancer six years ago at 71.

The first was the 2010 film L'Amour Fou, - "Mad love," in French - that one critic described as an "unfocused snapshot of the designer's life seen through the eyes of [partner] Bergé."

A second film, Saint Laurent, directed by Bertrand Bonello, debuted in May at the Cannes Film Festival. This version of Saint Laurent's life focused on the height of his career, from 1965 to 1976.

In Lespert's 106-minute version, the Yves Saint Laurent keenly portrayed by French actor Pierre Niney is cloaked in pain. The story spans the period from 1957 to the late 1970s. There is no mention of the big YSL conglomerate yet, nor is there any talk of the licenses - shoes, fragrances, or handbags. Instead, we're learning about the psychosis of the man.

It's not a coincidence that the movie's timeline mirrors the one written on the website of Bergé's foundation, created to celebrate the history of the House of Yves Saint Laurent; this film is the only one Bergé, now 83 and living in France, has endorsed. Because the film had his blessing, costume designer Madeline Fontaine was able to choose from the thousands of vintage Yves Saint Laurent ensembles for the film's super-quick, but really beautiful, fashion-show scenes.

We are introduced to Saint Laurent when he is a 21-year-old, bespectacled, painfully shy designer for Christian Dior, whose post-World War II "New Look" was giving shape to dour, Depression looks.

Dior dies and Saint Laurent becomes the House of Dior's creative director. Saint Laurent's tendency to freak out becomes apparent as he prepares for his first runway show at the label's helm. Under a sparkling chandelier, Saint Laurent presents the trapeze silhouette that would be lauded for decades.

Among the A-list editors who attend the highly anticipated show are Marie-Louise Bousquet of Harper's Bazaar, who introduces Bergé (French actor Guillaume Gallienne) to Saint Laurent. A few months later, Saint Laurent is drafted to fight in the Algerian War, where he suffers a nervous breakdown.

From there, the fashion drama (and genius) unfolds. The industry's most hallowed historical figures - cue black-and-white pictures from vintage Vogue magazines - punctuate the story line, including Saint Laurent's muses Victoire Doutreleau and Betty Catroux.

Fashion insiders will appreciate the inclusion of a raven-haired yet still pork-chopped Karl Lagerfeld (Nikolai Kinski). And they will be a little surprised to learn how Lagerfeld, longtime creative director of Chanel, figures into Saint Laurent's sordid life.

Niney, who says he is anything but a fashionista, spent five months preparing for the performance. He learned to sketch and worked with a trainer to achieve Saint Laurent's lithe 1950s look and his broad-shouldered 1970s physique.

The 25-year-old actor also immersed himself in the fashion lexicon, listening to old recordings of Saint Laurent to perfect the designer's soft-spoken, yet sometimes manic-tinged, inflections.

"It was very important that I captured the shyness and fragility of the man," said Niney. "He was a smart, sharp, and violent man who transformed his pain into masterpieces."

It's unfortunate that we don't learn in this movie that those masterpieces would forever change women's wear.

MOVIE

Yves Saint Laurent

Opens Friday at the Ritz at the Bourse


ewellington@phillynews.com

215-854-2704 @ewellingtonphl

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