Critic's Notebook: All About Yves (The Battle of the Saint Laurent Biopics)

YSL Split - H 2014

YSL Split - H 2014

"Saint Laurent" is France's official pick for the foreign-language Oscar race. "Yves Saint Laurent" was a box office hit at home. So which film wins the YSL biopic battle?

In France these days, big movies, like Christian Louboutin heels, tend to come in pairs.

In 2009, two Coco Chanel biopics, Coco Before Chanel and Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, hit cinemas. 2012 saw the near-simultaneous release of two competing adaptations of Louis Pergaud’s popular 1912 kids’ book, War of the Buttons (both of which received poor reviews and drew only modest numbers at the box office). 

But last year, another, perhaps more thrilling battle was declared when two separate biopics about infamous French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent (who died in 2008) were announced and concurrently touted at Berlin’s European Film Market, where images of their competing YSL lookalikes were shown to buyers and press. 

The first YSL project unveiled was Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, featuring Hannibal Rising star Gaspard Ulliel in the titular role. Plans for actor-turned-director Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent, starring Comedie Francaise thespian Pierre Niney, were divulged later on but the movie was then streamlined into completion, landing on French screens in January 2014 before premiering in Berlin. Bonello’s film bowed in Cannes months afterward.

The War of Le Smoking — to cite Saint Laurent’s famous tuxedo suit for women — escalated when the designer’s longtime companion and business partner, Pierre Berge, threw his weight behind the Lespert project, granting the production access to the couple’s estates in Paris and Marrakech, while helping recreate YSL’s memorable Opera Ballets Russes collection of 1976, which closes out the film and remains one of its highlights.

Read more Oscars: France Selects 'Saint Laurent' for Foreign-Language Category

The “official” Yves Saint Laurent received mixed-to-positive reviews in France, raking in an impressive $20 million while further launching Niney and co-star Guillaume Gallienne into the spotlight. The Weinstein Company released it in the U.S. this past summer, where it grossed a solid $700K at the art house.

But like Aesop’s tortoise, Bonello’s slow-and-steady Saint Laurent has been creeping up on the competition ever since earning a rather strong critical response (especially from the Gallic intelligentsia) at Cannes, where Sony Pictures Classics picked it up for North America. (It will debut Stateside next week at the New York Film Festival.) Just this past Monday, the French government announced that Saint Laurent would be its official submission for the foreign-language Oscar — mere days before Bonello’s movie hit local screens.

Putting money, egos and awards forecasts aside for the moment, what’s perhaps most telling about the battling YSL biopics is not necessarily what they say about the ongoing redundancy and cutthroat practices of the movie business, whether in France or in the U.S. (remember those two Truman Capote films?), but rather what they reveal about the genre itself. By nature, the biopic is something of a tainted specimen: how can any 90- to 120-minute film capture someone’s life in all its complexity? And the more famous the subject is — the more the public feels close to him or her — the easier it is to find flaws in how he or she has been rendered on screen.

The two YSL movies seem to sit on opposite sides of the biopic spectrum. In Lespert's Yves Saint Laurent, the designer's life is given a full narrative arc, beginning with his childhood in Algeria in the 1940s and ending with his rise to worldwide stardom in the 60s and 70s, a period during which he fell prey to spells of depression and decadence. In between, the story focuses on his tumultuous relationship with Berge (played by Gallienne), underlining how much the volatile creator needed the rock-solid businessman, and vice-versa. It’s less a tale of haute couture than of amour fou (as the 2010 documentary about the two is called), and is most notable for the verbal jousts between Niney and Gallienne.

Read more 'Yves Saint Laurent': Berlin Review

But by building up the drama and trying to offer a complete picture of Saint Laurent's life, Lespert’s movie loses something crucial along the way: the art of fashion itself. We know that YSL is a genius in his field because everyone in the movie keeps saying so, but we never understand what exactly he brought to the industry — how, for instance, he was the first major designer to introduce a pret-a-porter line, making fashion accessible to the greater public. (The film does make reference to his brilliant Mondrian dress, but it happens in one of those eureka moments that only biopics can manufacture.)

This is where Bonello’s version comes in — which is no surprise given the French auteur’s predilection for meticulously designed films filled with lush cinematography, layered sound and fabulous costumes (his 2011 brothel-set mood piece, House of Tolerance, is a prime example).

In its first half, especially, Bonello’s Saint Laurent captures something about the essence of fashion and the work that goes into creating it: we see how YSL draws inspiration from art, music and the world around him, how he constantly sketches out new designs and handles the fabric and how he uses a team of faithful helpers, not to mention the ever-faithful Berge (played by Jeremie Renier), to transform his vision into groundbreaking clothes. Employing split-screen to juxtapose the culture clashes of the 60s with scenes of models sporting YSL's latest outfits, Bonello tries to show how much fashion is a product of its epoch, but how it can also — in the case of Le Smoking — set trends for years to come.

Yet the film is so concerned with surfaces — splendid surfaces, to be sure — that it suffers dramatically, especially during latter reels that rather unconvincingly feature an older Saint Laurent (Helmut Berger) ruminating from the confines of the couple’s art-filled Paris mansion. And with a 150-minute running time, all the sequences of boozing, orgy-going and pill-popping (whether by YSL or his French bulldog) can grow as exhausting as they must have been in real life. Saint Laurent portrays the designer through a purple haze of partying and endless toiling in the studio, yet he never becomes someone we know intimately, nor someone we necessarily feel compassion for.

Read more 'Saint Laurent': Cannes Review

Ultimately, the Bonello version succeeds when it's about the art and not the man, while the Lespert version works when it's about the man (or men, as it's really Berge's story as well) and not the art. One film attempts to capture the creative process in all its elegant murkiness, while the other tries to show that behind every great man, there's another great man. But neither movie exactly hits the nail on the head in terms of making a completely satisfying biopic about a major artist — which Saint Laurent most certainly was.

Maybe such a feat is impossible, though there are a few exceptions to the rule when it comes to films about celebrated visual creators (Andrei Tarkvosky’s Andrei Rublev and Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh come to mind), while biopics about politicians, athletes and musicians tend to have it easier, as the performance side is already built into the subject itself (Get on Up being a good recent example). Biopics about writers are probably the toughest nut to crack: who wants to watch someone sitting in front of a typewriter for two hours?

If anything, the dueling Yves Saint Laurent movies prove that finding the right cinematic balance between a person’s art and their existence is no easy task, no matter how well they're dressed for the occasion. Perhaps Orson Welles — whose Citizen Kane remains the greatest unauthorized biopic ever made — expressed it best when, in Touch of Evil, he had Marlene Dietrich offer a warning to anyone hoping to neatly sum up the life of another, whether on screen or elsewhere: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”