Legendary designer Yves Saint Laurent “revolutionized women’s fashion” in the 1960s and 70s, this French biopic informs us right at its very very end. Which it perhaps deems a necessary tidbit to drop on us, because there hasn’t been the least hint a grand influence of “fashion’s little prince” in the preceding hour and 45 minutes. I say this not to slander the designer — who actually was quite an important figure in the history of draping women’s bodies in fancy clothes — but to wonder just what the heck director (and coscreenwriter) Jalil Lespert was thinking in neglecting to do fair justice to YSL’s legacy. Narrated from beyond Saint Laurent’s 2008 death by his lover and business partner, Pierre Bergé (Guillaume Gallienne: The Concert), this rote life story relies far too much on telling us stuff that it should be showing us. We’re briefed early on, for example, when he takes over the House of Dior in the late 50s, that sketching and designing is the only thing that truly engages him, but we never really see him excited about much of anything. (Pierre Niney as YSL is an appealingly wispy presence, but perhaps too wispy to hold up the too-thin film around him.) The designer’s manic-depressive illness seems to disappear after one brief breakdown early in his career, and even the clichéd cocaine-fueled gay orgies of the 1970s seem to have little impact one way or the other on his work and life. (Lespert’s depiction of decadence is surprisingly staid.) The simple acknowledgement of Saint Laurent’s homosexuality isn’t anywhere near as daring as perhaps it is intended to be… and certainly won’t be to anyone steeped enough in the history of fashion to understand why Saint Laurent’s notion to dress women in tuxedos in the 70s was so radical (hadn’t Garbo and Hepburn done the same decades earlier?). Handsome performances and elegant precision — the film is like a beautiful, cold fashion shoot — cannot make up for the context we need to understand what we’re seeing, or the emotion to appreciate that this is a story about a real person, not a distant icon.
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