Yves Saint Laurent: Berlin Review

Yves Saint Laurent Film Still - H 2014
The Weinstein Company

Yves Saint Laurent Film Still - H 2014

Two transformative performances compensate for a screenplay with no real third act.

Jalil Lespert directs the first of two YSL biopics -- this one starring Pierre Niney as the haute couture wunderkind and Guillaume Gallienne as his lover and business partner.

French actor-turned-director Jalil Lespert makes his best film yet with Yves Saint Laurent, the first of 2014’s two biopics about the iconic fashion designer.

Further confirming the apparently boundless talent of Comedie francaise actor Pierre Niney, who doesn’t play Saint Laurent so much as embody him, Yves Saint Laurent traces the life of the precocious talent, who took over from his mentor, Christian Dior, in 1957, when he was only 21. He’d become a recluse, suffering from manic-depressive spells, in the subsequent decades, becoming more dependent on alcohol and drugs as well as his partner, Pierre Berge, played by Guillaume Gallienne in an equally immersive if far less showy performance. Though the screenplay, based on Laurence Benaim’s biography, is all build-up and no payoff, there is just enough emotional insight to compensate for the lack of narrative fireworks in the last half-hour.

The Weinstein Company already scooped up U.S. rights to the film, which opens Jan. 8 in France and will also open the Berlinale’s Panorama in February. Director Bertrand Bonello’s rivaling version, made without Berge’s approval and starring Hannibal Rising’s Gaspard Ulliel, opens in May in France on the first day of the Cannes Film Festival.

For Lespert, who came to the fore as an actor in Laurent Cantet’s Human Resources, this is his third time in the director’s chair after 24 Bars and Headwinds, both intimate dramas that focus on characters and their emotions almost to the exclusion of a real sense of cinematic style. But by choosing to chronicle the life of one of the biggest style icons of the 20th century, Lespert has overcome this problem and the result is a character study in which both the direction and the film’s look are delicate and elegant.

The film starts, rather conventionally, in 1950s Oran, French Algeria, where Yves grew up (and where Lespert’s parents are from), though already the action is framed by events in 2008, after Saint Laurent’s death, a narrative sleight of hand that seems to have been lifted from Pierre Thoretton’s documentary L’Amour fou, about Saint Laurent and Berge and their art collection, which was auctioned off after the designer’s demise.

This results in the rather odd choice of having Berge (as played by Gallienne) provide a voice-over narration, though he wasn’t even present for the first part of the budding designer’s life. As in Thoretton’s film, the inescapable presence of the self-appointed steward of the legacy of his (former) lover and business partner feels like a protective filter as much as a facilitator.

Thankfully, the film refrains drowning in details as it expeditiously chronicles YSL’s quick ascent to the top of Dior, his subsequent mental breakdown after he’s been drafted (for the Algerian War), which his newfound boyfriend Berge helps him weather, Dior’s decision to let him go and his and Berge’s -- mostly Berge’s -- efforts to raise the funds needed to set up their own couture house, which would quickly become successful, and the subsequent strain put on YSL by having to design two couture and two pret-a-porter collections a year.

The co-dependent relationship of Saint Laurent and Berge is explored in some depth and culminates in a very strong nighttime scene in their bathroom in which the designer, destroyed by extreme alcohol and drug use, tearfully confesses he really does love his dandy new boyfriend, Jacques (Xavier Lafitte, playing the part Louis Garrel will play in Bonello’s film), but that Berge will always remain the love of his life.

The designer’s excessive era roughly coincides with his "Moroccan" period, when the couple spent a lot of time in their house in Marrakech, with the stylish cinematography and production design suddenly infused with wilder colors and more movement. The screenplay here also slyly inserts a poolside game during which one of Saint Laurent’s muses -- Laura Smet as Loulou de la Falaise, a role Lea Seydoux will play in the other biopic -- asks Yves some very personal questions that give some insight into a character who’s otherwise increasingly withdrawn.

Berge and Saint Laurent would continue their symbiotic business relationship until Yves’s death, though they split as a couple in the 1970s and the film’s third act struggles to infuse the latter years with any meaty drama since promoting Berge to very prominent co-star means that there’s not a lot at stake anymore once love is no longer part of the equation.

The fact Swiss director of photography Thomas Hardmeier and ace production designer Aline Bonetto had just collaborated on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet ensures that their work is fully synced, and the rich contributions of costume designer Madeline Fontaine, who has frequently worked with Bonetto, further reinforce the impression that the visual aspects of the film are all very finely calibrated. Ibrahim Maalouf’s score occasionally dares to go for baroque or broke, lending an operatic quality to the proceedings that suits the material.

Opens: Jan. 8 (in France; also in Berlinale Panorama)

Production companies: WY Productions, SND, Cinefrance 1888, Herodiade, Umedia

Cast: Pierre Niney, Guillaume Gallienne, Charlotte Le Bon, Laura Smet, Marie de Villepin, Nikolai Kinski, Ruben Alves, Astrid Whettnall, Xavier Lafitte  

Director: Jalil Lespert

Screenwriters: Marie-Pierre Huster, Jacques Fieschi, Jalil Lespert, based on the book Yves Saint Laurent by Laurence Benaim

Producers: Wassim Beji

Director of photography: Thomas Hardmeier

Production designer: Aline Bonetto

Music: Ibrahim Maalouf

Costume designer: Madeline Fontaine

Editor: Francois Gedigier

Sales: SND

No rating, 104 minutes.