In a key sex vs. affection moment of the new bio-pic Yves Saint Laurent, the famous designer’s lover Pierre Bergé smirks, “The artist gets me hard,” to which Yves can only shyly whisper: “I love you.” There’s some kind of progress in showing a cultural revolutionary who was also a libertine with conflicts. At one time Saint Laurent’s gay life story would have been filmed judgmentally—as during the era of Ken Russell’s biopics that depicted the sexual and creative lives of artists from Tchaikovsky to Rudolph Valentino. But now, Saint Laurent’s imperfections (his horny recklessness and psychological fragility that began even before he took over the atelier of Christian Dior at age 21) can be shown as part of a full picture of his personal complications.
Director Jalil Lespert avoids the difficulties of Saint Laurent’s repressive background (whether church doctrine or the creed of French colonials in Algiers where he was raised) in order to luxuriate in the pleasures of his ambition, success and, finally, his self-destruction.
Saint Laurent’s rise and fall are told through his complicated partnership with life-long companion and business associate Bergé. French actors Pierre Niney and Guillaume Gallienne respectively portray Saint Laurent and Berger’s sexuality with casual candor. Niney embodies that famous bird-with-eye-glasses timidity and Gallienne conveys a saturnine worldliness. No “nelly” stereotyping here, just detailed demonstration of mutual attraction, individual intelligence and personal sensitivity—and, of course, a cavalcade of fashions.
Lespert shows nostalgia for how impudent gay life used to be. Saint Laurent and Bergé’s open partnership puts stress on their intimacy—especially Saint Laurent’s flirtation with the brazen model and early soul-mate Victoire Doutreleau (Charlotte Le Bon). But there’s almost too much chic: mysterious shades, slim bodies, perfect hair. Even their most complicated moments are stylized: Saint Laurent in bed with Victoire and her wayward husband trade seductive glances. A North African vacation pays homage to David Hockney’s painting "A Bigger Splash."
The designer’s personal revolution grows insolent and unstable—promiscuous and drug-filled—which indicates a decadent response to freedom. A swish-pan transition from Saint Laurent’s bourgeois family reunion to a degenerate party with Karl Lagerfeld and Andy Warhol rushes Saint Laurent’s decline without examining it. This view of debauchery is more sympathetic than Steven Soderbergh’s disingenuous Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, yet it’s less insightful than Julian Schnabel’s Reinaldo Arenas biography Before Night Falls or the Brazilian drag queen biopic Madame Sata.
Lespert doesn’t pick up the thread of Saint Laurent’s runway shows all ending with ostentatious wedding dresses, as if the young libertine harbored some traditionalist belief despite his private anarchy. “When we’re in love we’re in danger” Yves says when attracted to the depraved hanger-on Jacques de Bascher (Xavier LaFitte). He confesses to Bergé, “I love him, but you’re the love of my life.” Getting over some sense of inferiority or dissatisfaction troubled Saint Laurent. And Lespert, too. His subject dazzles and ultimately eludes him.