Yves Saint Laurent' delivers

High fashion meets high drama in exceptional French film

Thursday July 17, 2014 04:00 am EDT

It's no surprise that a house of high fashion is also a house of high drama, though the intensity and authenticity of this connection may come as something of a shock to audiences at the sumptuous new French film Yves Saint Laurent. It's not just a movie about the making of lovely clothes (though there are plenty of them in the picture); it's a serious look at the life of a complicated genius, one who battled depression, addiction, an unglamorously difficult love life, and — perhaps more challenging than any of these — the isolating uncertainty and terrifying freedom that come once the loftiest peaks of success have been reached.

Actor Pierre Niney gives us Saint Laurent as a hot nerd in horn rims, one whose reticence seemingly conceals vast reserves of strength, but also huge vulnerabilities. He's as lithe and beautiful as French cursive script, but he's also profound and intriguing. He proves especially so in what could otherwise be perfunctory biographical scenes, such as the young Saint Laurent's nervous breakdown or when the designer effortlessly charms a visiting group of female fashion journalists through sharing some unvarnished truths in a shy, but mischievous, even flirty, little whisper. Director Jalil Lespert keeps the narrative moving swiftly and efficiently. Though the film is densely packed with incident, the director avoids some of the more obvious and familiar biopic storytelling clichés. When things like flashbacks, voice-overs, and montages do appear, they are effectively and smartly deployed.

Genius isn't always an easy sell for audiences in terms of understanding and sympathy, so the film wisely focuses on the troubled, but beautifully enduring relationship between Saint Laurent and his partner (in both the business and the romantic sense), Pierre Bergé. Though the movie has an appropriately pretty and stylish surface, there are no holds barred in the depiction of the complicated and ugly jealousies, conflicts, and even cruelties that were apparently a part of this radioactively mutable but loving partnership.

Laurent died in 2008, but the surviving Bergé authorized and approved of this film by Lespert. He did not bestow the same honor on the yet-to-be-released biopic Saint Laurent by Bertrand Bonello. It's hard to imagine that there is a single salacious, embarrassingly intimate detail left out of the Lespert film that could be offered in an unauthorized retelling, but we'll see. In the meantime, this one is not to be missed.

There is a small but fascinating Atlanta connection in the film that's worth mentioning. At one point, Saint Laurent needs funds to start his own couture house, and we're told in voice-over narration that an investor from Atlanta provides the money. An actor in a non-speaking role plays this dapper, smiling Atlantan with the large bank account in a very brief scene. There's not much information about the character in the film, but this is the very real Atlanta businessman J. Mack Robinson, whose life sounds as fascinating and as worthy of a film as Saint Laurent's.

Born in Atlanta in 1923, Robinson worked his way up from a job as an office gofer at the Atlanta Journal to become the owner of used car lots, which eventually led him into the higher-stakes realms of finance and banking. His involvement in the insurance industry in Switzerland led him to cross paths with Laurent and to a decision to invest in the young designer. Though it was an uncharacteristically risky venture, Robinson took a great interest in Saint Laurent's career, investing his own personal funds rather than risking the insurance company's. He frequently traveled from Atlanta to Paris to take an active role in the burgeoning fashion house. The travel started to take too much time away from his family in Atlanta, so Robinson sold his 80-percent share in 1966 for $1 million, about what he'd put into it. The famed Atlanta businessman (Georgia State's College of Business is named in his honor) later admitted that the early sale was a bad mistake considering the fact that the Yves Saint Laurent company sold in 1999 for $1 billion.

Robinson, who died in early 2014, maintained a friendship with Saint Laurent throughout the designer's life. The GSU College of Business's website says that Robinson and his wife, Nita, received a hand-painted Christmas card from Saint Laurent every year. The film shows one brief scene of Saint Laurent in his later years as he sits, drawing at his desk, inside his beautiful Paris home. It's not specified, so we can imagine that this scene depicts Saint Laurent doing the preliminary sketches for a card, one to drop in the mail to reach Atlanta in time for Christmas.

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