Forget love: Fashion is a battlefield. The moments that define a designer or reinvent an era are inherently dramatic and visually arresting, so the heady mixture of inspiration, theft, friendship and infighting seem tailor-made for movies. And for those who know their fashion, there are moments in Yves Saint Laurent that carry that sense of excitement: a teenage Saint Laurent draping a white sash on a gown that would become iconic on model Dovima; the introduction of woman’s tuxedo jacket “Le Smoking,” a blending of the tailored, the bohemian and the forbidden that hasn’t fallen out of style since.
But for those unfamiliar with Saint Laurent, the film offers only passing context for the work—a bit of inspiration, a moment of the result, a voiceover or timely music cue letting us know how it was received. If the film was more concerned with the man than the collections, that too makes sense, but instead it suffers the fate of many a biopic before it in reenacting its subject’s life rather than examining it. And no matter what drug trips or romantic liaisons director Jalil Lespert includes—and despite an all-in performance from Pierre Niney, who’s perilously fragile, dreamy and vicious by turns—the portrait comes off a little sterile. Things feel particularly careful surrounding Saint Laurent’s relationship with Pierre Bergé (Guillaume Gallienne), which generated decades of gossip amid the formation of Saint Laurent’s empire.
Fondness for the subject has its advantages—of the two Saint Laurent biopics opening this year, only this one bears Bergé’s stamp of approval—but while the movie occasionally suggests questions about their life and mutual influence, it too often skirts answers. It does, however, recreate the “Ballets Russes” collection, and for Yves Saint Laurent’s ideal viewer, that might well be what you came for.