Movie review: 'Yves Saint Laurent' offers rare glimpse into fashion designer's life

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Sometimes those whose lives appear glamorous on the surface are quite gauche behind closed doors.

Famed French designer Yves Saint Laurent, who died in 2008 at age 71, is one such case. To the public he had the world of high fashion at his fingertips, becoming the artistic director of the House of Dior at 21 and establishing his own fashion house by his mid-20s. But friends and family knew him as a shy, socially awkward, at times fragile man who sometimes turned to drinking and drugs for episodic escapes from the demands of churning out four collections per year and his insecurities.

'Yves Saint Laurent’

Starring: Pierre Niney, Guillaume Gallienne.

Rating: R for sexual content and drug use.

His prestige and pitfalls are the focus of “Yves Saint Laurent” by French director Jalil Lespert. In it he weaves a chronological look at the career of Mr. Saint Laurent (Pierre Niney) with insights into his relationship with longtime companion and business partner Pierre Berge (Guillaume Gallienne).

Much of what’s been documented about Mr. Saint Laurent sticks to his contributions to style. This look into his private life, set against the backdrop of societal issues and events of the time (such as the Algerian War of Independence, in which the designer was drafted), was refreshing and enriched the story and what we know about him. The decision, however, to tell this story as though it was through the memories of Mr. Berge fell flat. Occasional voiceovers of him expressing his reflections were too brief and sporadic to be effective. 

Mr. Lespert cut no corners when it came to letting viewers know that Mr. Saint Laurent’s life had its darker side. Sets washed with muted colors, dimly lit rooms and instrumentals with dismal undertones contributed to this aesthetic, which felt almost too dark at times.

For fashion fans this film is a visual and historical treat. Models in the movie wore dresses from the Saint Laurent Foundation, and several scenes were shot at places the designer lived or worked. The director spent about two decades researching his life and consulted with Mr. Berge, who’s now in his 80s, to learn more. For the viewer without a vested interest in the subject, this film might not be a good fit and passing references to fashion phrases and now-famous faces such as Karl Lagerfeld (Nikolai Kinski) likely won’t mean much.

Opens today at the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill. In French with English subtitles.


’Sara Bauknecht: or on Twitter @SaraB_PG.

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