A biopic on the life of French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent ( Pierre Niney), starting from the beginning of his career in 1958 when he met his lover and business partner, Pierre Berge (Guillaume Gallienne).

Love cuts deep in chic biopic.

This stylish and intimate biopic is ravishingly beautiful. The actors, the clothes, the music and the cinematography conspire to convince us that Yves Saint Laurent was right: beauty is everything, and the world exists merely to inspire it. But as we’re always taught, beauty comes at a price, and this film, directed by actor-turned-director Jalil Lespert (24 Bars, Headwinds), is essentially a portrait of a troubled genius; one whose huge talents are counterbalanced by a crippling shyness and a tendency towards self-destruction.

The story really begins in 1957, the year in which the 21-year-old Saint Laurent made headlines when he took over a major fashion house after the death of his mentor, Christian Dior. Saint Laurent is superbly played here by Pierre Niney, who manages, with his big nose, long limbs and heavy spectacles, to be both luminously beautiful and convincingly awkward. Wracked by insecurity and tormented by the pressures of coming up with annual fashion shows, he’s prone to temper tantrums, often treating his workers  and models as slaves – though in this version, such nastiness never goes very deep.

“So you’re a spoiled child, then?” asks Pierre Berge (Guillaume Gallienne), the man who would become Saint Laurent’s lover, long-time companion and business partner. “Yes, aren’t you?” asks Saint Laurent. “No, I was raised by a school teacher,” says Berge sternly. It’s a telling exchange, and one that goes some way to explaining the co-dependence of this partnership; one where Berge would essentially become the minder of the genius, the businessman behind the artist, and the nurse to the mentally fragile young designer.  

The film is (sometimes awkwardly) structured around this love story, climaxing in 1976, the year Saint Laurent turned 40 and the pair parted as lovers but continued as business partners and art collectors. (Unlike the other movie coming out this year, Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, this version had the blessing of the real life Berge, who continues as custodian of Saint Laurent’s legacy, and allowed filming inside Saint Laurent’s opulent homes in Paris and Marrakech.) There are some very fine moments in the depiction of this complex relationship – from the first lustful looks and joyful kisses by the Seine, through to the jealousy and unease Berge feels as he tries to distance the designer from his party-loving lovers and drug-happy muses like Louou de la Falaise (Laura Smet) and Betty Catroux (Marie de Villepin). “When we’re in love, we’re in danger. I like it,” swoons Saint Laurent with one of his male lovers, and it’s a line that tells us much about his addictions and indulgences.

For a film about a style icon, it’s fitting that the real triumph is in the clothes and the fashion parades – scenes which take on the reverence of a religious rite, particularly in the showing of the climactic 1976 Ballets Russes collection, which is accompanied by an impassioned operatic score. Costume designer Madeline Fontaine had access to the Saint Laurent archives and collections. What’s on show here is a delicious taste (never quite enough) of the designer’s key moments – from his early twists on Dior’s new look, through to his now iconic 1965 Mondrian day-dress and 1966 ‘Le Smoking’ tuxedo for women. If anything, we long for more of the clothes, and more of the scenes in which Saint Laurent is inspired by art, music, pop culture and by his beautiful muses. The best of these is Victoire Doutreleau (Charlotte Le Bon), with whom Saint Laurent shares a delightful and sensual platonic romance.

Troubled geniuses work best in cinema when they blaze out and destroy themselves in fireworks. The slow decline of middle and old age poses a challenge for classic storytelling, and perhaps that’s why this film lacks a proper third act or a satisfying denouement. Nevertheless, it’s a must for fashion lovers, and a fittingly luxurious introduction to the man behind so many of the clothes that made history in the twentieth century.

Watch 'Yves Saint Laurent' on SBS and SBS on Demand

8:40pm, SBS
Available after broadcast at SBS On Demand