Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jul 01, 2014 4:15 pm 
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Portrait of a fragile genius, version one

There are two Yves Saint Laurent features this year, so ideally one would compare them, but I haven't seen the second one yet. It premiered at Cannes in May but its French theatrical release won't come till October. The first, which I'll discuss here, released in January in France, was directed by the actor Jalil Lespert (Human Resources, Le Petit Lieutenant) with the imprimatur of YSL's partner and lover Pierre Bergé, with access to properties and fashions of the YSL Foundation. Burdened down by the restraints of that imprimatur, but with a lead actor who has an uncanny physical resemblance to the designer, Lespert's film may deserve the kindness of being considered by itself. It has a voiceover by Bergé looking back after Saint Laurent's death, when he's selling their art collections, like the documentary, L'Amour Fou. With a screenplay by veteran adaptor Jacques Fieschi based on the Laurence Benaim biography, the film runs through the first 20 years of YSL's career, from the Fifties into the Seventies, when he went from the shy but brilliant young heir of Dior to one of the great cultural pace-setters of the late twentieth century. Pierre Niney and Guillaume Gallienne play YSL and Bergé, respectively, both members of the Comédie Française and of course superbly trained actors. Niney is the company's youngest member and a hot young star in France these days, with a long thin body that slips easily into YSL's smocks and suits and a long pale face to set off YSL's big-framed glasses. One admires Niney's physical effect in every scene of the film. As a Saint Laurent tableau, he's perfect.

Lespert's Yves Saint Laurent has a couple of grand emotional moments, notably after several of the designer's most notable collections have been shown, when one is moved almost to tears by the dazzling display of creativity and elegance and the success and effort. The Russian ballet-inspired collection, with the aria from La Wally (nicked from Beinix's Diva, but it's still gorgeous) will sweep you away. Yet the film as a whole is too restrained and timid and by the end leaves you feeling almost nothing, because it lacks a significant structure or powerful secondary characters or a strong finale, and YSL himself as embodied visually to perfection by Niney is a bit of a mystery, a delicate, elegant statue, puffing on cigarettes, good for nothing but being wild, neurotic, and druggy and endlessly working to produce his shows. He was bipolar and brittle, and may have destroyed his ability to feel anything with drugs. Bergé says he was happy only twice a year, in spring and fall, when preparing the collections. He was a genius, the greatest couturiers are, and was tormented, and partied very hard.

You walk away disappointed by Lespert's film; then you realize how beautiful it is. This is a French film, about one of the greatest French icons, and there's a lot here, even if it lacks punch. As often with biopics the best parts are the early ones when the actor's impersonation is fresh. Niney's delicate, precise speech is sublimely elegant, but those are just little vignettes, well-timed gestures.

We see him draw, and drape fabrics, and it looks true. But as with any movie about an artist we need something more than the mechanical representation of art-making and a few token crises and nervous breakdowns and wild parties. But the other, unblessed, film called Saint Laurent, in competition recently at Cannes but not hitting French cinemas till five months later, has a more interesting director, Bertrand Botello of the languorous and meandering turn-of-the-century brothel portrait Tolerance/L'Apollonide (Souvenirs de la maison close), which promises heavier atmosphere and more free improvisation, something a little less predictable, and provides the more intense and sexy Gaspard Ulliel in the role of YSL. Gallienne has had some good film roles and won a best actor César this year for Me, Myself and Mum (French: Les garçons et Guillaume, à table!), but Bonello got the more famous Jérémie Renier to tone himself down for the role of Bergé. Louis Garrel plays Jacques de Bascher, YSL's lover, for Bonello instead of the relatively little known and uninteresting Xavier Lafitte. (I have not seen this film yet but I picked up details by watching its recent full-dress Q&A at Cannes). If Ulliel's performance fails to live up to Niney's, all bets are off on Bonello's YSL trumping Lespert's. Bonello's version will at least dare to go more on the dark side; it even sports Helmut Berger playing YSL in a bloated, decaying body in 1989.

But again, Lespert's film has a few playful early love scenes, some dramatic domestic quarrels, a few mad moments, and some heavy parties. It may stand for its few sketch and designing moments, where Niney's insect-quick delicacy sings. And there is the scene, with Niney in fine form, where Loulou de la Falaise (Laura Smet) feeds YSL the Proust questionnaire as he stands in a swimming pool and he gives his playful, smiling answers. Moments like that may remind one that people with vision who are not happy can still live the lives of happy men, as well as make others happy.

Yves Saint Laurent, 106 mins., went direct into French cinemas 8 January 2014, when it got a mediocre critical reception (Allociné press rating 3.0), afterward showing in a few international festivals, opening in many countries, and getting snapped up for US distribution by the Weinstein company. It was released 25 June 2014 at Film Forum in New York City. Watched for this review at a press screening at Film Forum. Metacritic rating 49%. It opens in subsequent weeks at Landmark Theaters in L.A., Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco and other cities.

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