By Sydney Jean Gottfried
Yves Saint Laurent is the first of two films featuring the late fashion designer that will debut in the States from France this fall. The film follows Laurent’s life from the time he took over as the artistic director of House of Dior at the impressive age of 21, through his rise to haute couture stardom, and finally to the late 70’s, when drugs and mental illness began to consume his life.
You might expect a film about such a revered designer to be first and foremost about fashion, but in fact, it’s not. Above all, Laurent is the love story of YSL and his business and life partner, Pierre Bergé. It’s a tumultuous and often destructive love story, but a love story nonetheless. Bergé narrates the film, as he reflects on Laurent’s life after his death. The intimate narration could have added a lot of emotion to the film, but was too infrequent to convey amorous feelings.
Director Jalil Lespert focuses too much on YSL’s personal struggles, and not enough on his obsessive fascination with fashion. The audience sees YSL so crippled by manic-depression and self-hatred that it can’t help but wonder when he ever had the time or capacity to design clothes. YSL was an innate fashion genius, best known for his Mondrian dress, tuxedos for women, and popularizing high-end ready-to-wear fashion. Even with original pieces on loan for the film, only a fraction of his talent shone through.
To go even further, I might argue that the film paints YSL as unlikable—more a person to pity than one to praise. He is seen repeatedly cheating on Bergé, the only person who loved and protected him unconditionally. He is heard calling his longtime friend and principal model, Victoire, a whore. He uses his genius status to exonerate himself from every other obligation he has in life. The film portrays YSL as someone you certainly wouldn’t want to work with, much less know.
So what’s the verdict? Did Lespert get it right? I think he might have missed the point. While I agree drugs and mental illness ruled much of YSL’s life, I think his adoration of fashion should have taken precedence. His legacy would surely indicate so. I enjoyed the deeper look into YSL’s private life, but I would like to have seen more of why we remember him as one of fashion’s greatest.