Yves Saint Laurent, the great French fashion designer, was by any definition an early bloomer. He was hired as an assistant at the legendary House of Dior while still in his teens, and at 21 became the head designer after Christian Dior died of a heart attack in 1957.
In Yves Saint Laurent, Jalil Lespert’s biopic about the designer (who died in 2008), we see him, played by Pierre Niney, as a gawky, nervous young man, pale as muslin, with an angular face hiding behind large trademark glasses.
He’s not quite comfortable with life, but in the workroom, he knows his instincts are perfect. Standing before a model in a pretty but unmemorable black dress, he ponders, rips into a nearby bolt of white fabric and fashions a sash that suddenly transforms the dress into the stuff of dreams.
Yves Saint Laurent, though skillfully made, perhaps needed a few more moments like this, and a bit less of the rather predictable melodrama that was YSL’s life. As perhaps inevitable for one so successful at such a young age, the designer struggled in middle age: Addiction and illness took a toll, turning him into an ever-smoking, jittery wraith, and his longtime relationship with Pierre Berge (with whom he co-founded his own fashion house, leaving Dior in the early 1960s) became tempestuous.
We’ve seen scenes like this in movies before; what we haven’t seen, and don’t get quite enough of here, is the inspiration that drew YSL to create groundbreaking clothing whose influence is still felt today: the women’s tuxedo (known as “Le Smoking,” and made at a time when pantsuits for women were quite daring), the Mondrian shift dress, the sumptuous Russian-influenced collections.
Another French-made YSL biopic, called Saint Laurent, is coming to theaters later this year. Here’s hoping it lingers just a bit more on those creations.
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