Suffering from the same handsome-but-uninspired treatment that sinks so many Hollywood biopics, the French-language "Yves Saint Laurent" from director Jalil Lespert, which traces the life of the pioneering fashion designer through its most turbulent decades, had its premiere recently at the Berlin Film Festival. Like any film about fashion, there is always the challenge of how it will strike a balance between the gloss and glamor of the surface and delivering something that reveals more than just who-went-where-wearing-what. But in an effort to address this issue and add complexity to its characterization, 'YSL' chooses a time frame that mistakes breadth for depth, and then it skitters across the surface of the subject without ever delivering any real insight. Instead, over the twenty-odd years the film covers, Saint Laurent is scene-by-scene depicted as a genius, a manic-depressive, a polyamorist, a drug taker, a mercurial friend, a partier and a terribly, terribly sensitive soul. He undoubtedly was all of these things and more, it's just a pity he doesn't also come across as a person.
The prologue introduces Saint Laurent (Pierre Niney) as a young man in French Algeria, from where his family hails. But his politics in regards to the colonial regime are delicately picked at only to be promptly dropped a number of times throughout the film, as are many other potentially distasteful or controversial topics. In fact a great deal of what is hinted in this opening turns out to have little bearing on the rest of the film: there's the implication that his relationship with his stylish, outspoken mother is perhaps too close and too indulged to be quite healthy, but we see very little of her subsequently. We do, however, get plenty of detail about Saint Laurent's love life, foreshadowed here by a charged glance or two at the Algerian gardener. And already the film is prettily mounted, with the clothes, naturally, chosen with particular care. This will continue throughout as, via a seemingly biopic-obligatory framing device (the film is largely narrated and told through the eyes of Saint Laurent's business partner and long-term lover Pierre Berge, played by Guillaume Gallienne) Yves goes from being Dior's assistant, to taking over as Head Designer when Dior dies, to setting up his own eponymous atelier after his relationship with House Dior, and Yves himself, breaks down, following his conscription into the army.
Up to this point the film has been engaging enough, if not particularly incisive, and the sequences that deal directly with the clothes have a certain appeal, even if they're not hugely innovative (we see him designing his first major hit under his own name, the Mondrian dress, via a montage of him having an IDEA, leafing through a book on the artist and feverishly drawing up the designs — a Mondriantage!). But the focus is always more on his private life, shown as a series of episodes that often have little bearing on one another: he proposes to his favorite model Victoire (the luminous Charlotte Le Bon), but she marries someone else; they remain friends until he discovers her affair with Pierre; he is diagnosed with manic depression; he goes to live in Marrakech and tries drugs; he falls for another guy while still living with Pierre etc etc and on and on. None of it amounts to anything at all, and often, some rather herky-jerk time ellipses mean that a lot has happened between two scenes we might have thought were consecutive. The effect is of a series of flashbulb stills that chart an extremely familiar arc of professional success vs personal struggle — the lot, we've been told by this sort of film since forever — of the Tortured Artist.
Hampered by the biopic-playbook writing, the two main actors acquit themselves maybe a little better than the film deserves. Both Comedie Francaise members, as the end credits helpfully tell us, Niney and Gaillienne both do their level best to inject some depth into shallow roles in which motivation is too often covered off by "because he's a sensitive genius" or "because he understands the sensitivity of genius" respectively. But Niney especially is hamstrung by being written and directed in each moment to be only ever one thing: this is as close to a subtext-free film as we've encountered recently. And so even with the actor trying to bring a level of soulfulness, Saint Laurent ends up little more than a tailor's dummy onto which moods and emotions are draped like patterned fabric.
France has an extremely prolific national cinema, which of course means that, like anywhere quality, even originality, is anything but assured. In fact, in contrast to what someone judging only on those French films that make it overseas might think, French cinemagoers are more likely to be served a subpar romantic comedy or a lukewarm heritage drama than the latest Claire Denis on any given trip to le cine. And it is to the former category of middling blah that "Yves Saint Laurent" definitely belongs. It's as deeply French as can be, especially in its laudably unconstricted attitude toward sexuality and relationships (it's an effort to write about it without employing loan phrases like "menage a trois," "amour fou" or "affaire de coeur"). And certainly the conversations are marked by the kind of enigmatic non-sequiturs and emotional about-turns that are supposed to make us sigh at the wistful je ne sais quoi of it all, but in fact just fill us with ennui. If it helps give you any idea, in approach its nearest recent equivalent for us is "Lee Daniels' The Butler" though with a lot less social context, so if you liked that movie and dig fashion, perhaps this is for you. For the rest of us, maybe there is an interesting, revealing film to be made out of this man's journey from shy, willowy aesthete to internationally renowned fashion superstar, but, in what is potentially good news for rival 2014 Lea Seydoux-starring YSL project "Saint Laurent," this isn't it. [C-]