Yves Saint Laurent Squared: Fashion Flicks Hit Runway in Pairs

Pierre Niney in ‘Yves Saint Laurent’/Photo © The Weinstein Co.

Most definitions of the word house include the idea of shelter and protection, but stick the word fashion in front of it and that refuge becomes a fortress. This is never clearer than when fashion goes to the movies. Take the new biopics of French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. There are two: the one his surviving partner, Pierre Bergé, wants you to see and the other one, against which Bergé's threatened legal action.

Even dyed-in-the-Merino-wool fashionistas will need some help telling them apart. "Yves Saint Laurent," directed by Jalil Lespert and led by astounding twenty-four-year-old newcomer Pierre Niney, is the film Bergé loaned seventy-seven vintage ensembles from the Saint Laurent archive and the film for which he flung wide the doors of the Parisian Avenue Marceau headquarters. "Saint Laurent," helmed by Bertrand Bonello, is the film that received a C&D from Bergé's lawyer Emmanuel Pierrat.

Bonello hired César-winning costume designer Anaïs Romand after receiving the blessing of Francois-Henri Pinault, a fashion titan who owns Gucci, a majority stake in Alexander McQueen and who's owned the Saint Laurent label since 1999, shortening the name to Saint Laurent Paris in 2012 and pulling in about 347 million dollars in the first half of 2013.

The films, like the fashion, are first and foremost about the bottom line, but Bergé claims to "own the moral right" to his late partner's work. He makes the same claims to the late French polymath Jean Cocteau, making Bergé, who met Saint Laurent at Dior's funeral, one of the most celebrated crepe hangers in the history of French arts and letters, although he did put his boyfriend in business by successfully suing Dior after the label dismissed Saint Laurent in 1960.

Unbothered, Bonello premiered his film at Cannes this summer, although any legal action will probably follow the film's general release, which Sony Pictures Classics pushed back until October. The bump gave first-to-market director Lespert a chance to crow, "Making a movie about the greatest fashion designer of all time without the ability to show the dresses would be like making 'La Vie En Rose" without having Piaf songs."

Perhaps, but neither film is about the dresses. If you want dresses, any major metropolitan museum with a costume wing will have many, and Bergé himself regularly tours shows culled from his foundation's archive. These films are about the man behind the dress and even Lespert's film, with its open access to the archive, reduces Saint Laurent's groundbreaking, 1976 Ballets Russes collection to a simplistic YSL muse; Loulou de la Falaise wears headwraps, and so do Russians.

Bonello's film wisely ditches chronology and opens in the psychic nadir that was Saint Laurent's 1974, but from which he emerged phoenix-like with his triumphant Russian collection and, incidentally, romantically split from Bergé. And while Lespert relies on the addiction memoir trope of collapse after accomplishment with a groggy Saint Laurent teetering down the runway, Bonello doesn't ignore the fact that the designer survived, living for more than three decades past his 1976 masterstroke and into ripe old age.

While both films are competent, Bonello's movie benefits from the lack of Bergé peering over his shoulder. And while neither film stints on the trashier moments in Saint Laurent's drug and sex-fuelled 1970s, Bonello has a better handle on employing them to dramatic effect. Both give us Saint Laurent between the sheets, but only Bonello depicts him drugging and drinking en flagrante.

Obviously, Bergé was there and knows where the bodies are buried, but he should have been content with the 2010 doc "L'Amour Fou," which chronicled his WPP (white people problems) during the 2009 Christie's auction that dissolved the pair's belongings to the tune of half a billion dollars. That film is handier as a verisimilitude benchmark for the men like Bergé and a young Karl Lagerfeld - crying out in both films for his own biopic - and Saint Laurent's many muses, such as de la Falaise and Betty Catroux.

And that blonde bad girl Catroux, played ably in Lespert's film by former model Marie de Villepin and unforgettably in Bonello's film by Lagerfeld muse Aymeline Valade, is perhaps the inspiration for Saint Laurent's quote: "What is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it." The same could be said for films about fashion so we've rounded up four pair of fashion's finest femme fatales.

Donatella Versace

Ever since Elizabeth Berkley uttered the classic line "Thanks, I bought it at Ver-sayce" in the 1995 camp classic "Showgirls," the brand has battled its placement as fashion's low culture watermark. Two years later, the fashion icon was gunned down on the steps of his South Beach mansion by serial killer Andrew Cunanan and there was no stemming the lurid fascination, much of which focused on his surviving sister Donatella.

The leathery, duck-lipped Italian became a recurring Maya Rudolph character on "Saturday Night Live" and the "rich bitch" of Lady Gaga's recent hit "Donatella," but before all of that, there was Menahem Golan's trashfest "The Versace Murder." This film, released just months after the titular slaying, stars Dania Deville as the bleached-blonde - and she was promptly never heard from again. This one begins by cataloging here-Caucasian Andrew Cunanan's sex toys and it's a swift, downhill plow from there, but hideous bangs and outsized shirts more Donna than Donatella make Deville worth catching for cringe-worthiness. Steven Bauer as a dogged FBI agent lends some Miami cred.

From the moment "House of Versace" opens backstage at a Versace fashion show to the strains of Technotronic's early 1990s anthem "Pump Up the Jam," it's clear this Lifetime television movie is camp's "Citizen Kane." Enter Gina Gershon's Donatella, who raises her arms into a W as two assistants peel off a bolero leopard fur and handbag. For the next ninety minutes, she runs rampant, attacking the material the way her Donatella attacks mounds of cocaine: like a Bissell on steroids. It's a career-defining achievement for Gershon - her "Mommie Dearest" moment - no easy feat for a resume rife with "Mommies Dearest."

Diana Vreeland

"Now hear this," a white-gloved Kay Thompson decrees after marching into the inner sanctum of Quality Magazine. "I simply cannot release this issue the way it is." She fans the magazine at her minions and blares, "It doesn't speak! And if it won't speak to me, it won't speak to anyone."

Thompson is doing legendary fashion magazine editor Diana Vreeland and hijacking Stanley Donen's 1957 Audrey Hepburn musical "Funny Face" in the process, prefiguring everything from Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly to Anna Wintour herself. This is the original and defining Vreeland on-screen, although a 2011 documentary by Vreeland's granddaughter-in-law called "The Eye Has to Travel" offers some wonderful clips of Vreeland by which to compare. Additionally, Illeana Douglass gamely gives it a go in the 2006 Edie Sedgewick biopic "Factory Girl."

Wilhelmina Cooper

A Ford model who holds Vogue's cover record, Wilhelmina Cooper launched her own modeling agency in 1967 and this Dutch beauty quickly ascended to fashion's one-name pantheon. As the agent who discovered supermodel Gia Carangi, she figures prominently in the HBO movie "Gia," starring Angelina Jolie. Faye Dunaway piled on the accent and bouffant and received a Golden Globe for her efforts. But Wilhelmina, who also launched the first African American supermodel, Naomi Sims, is the basis for Wilhelmina Slater, Vanessa Williams's high-end villain on the TV series "Ugly Betty."

Coco Chanel

The legendary French fashion designer did costumes for Jean Renoir, Jean Cocteau, and even Gloria Swanson, so it's perhaps fair that she's been so richly rewarded in biopics. Anna Mouglalis portrayed her in a 2009 film examining her relationship with the composer Igor Stravinsky, while Audrey Tatou took her on that same year in "Coco Before Chanel" focusing on her orphaned childhood and early claw to success.

But it's Lifetime, again on top, with Shirley MacLaine in the Emmy-nominated title role of 2008's "Coco Chanel." MacLaine only holds down about a third of the film's three-hour runtime - the younger Chanel is played by Barbora Bobulova - but when Shirl is on-screen, she's like an aphorism machine, blasting out Chanel-isms like: "A woman wearing the wrong perfume has no future" and clearly forecasting her "Downton Abbey" delight Martha Levinson.

Patrizia Reggiani

Never heard of Patrizia Reggiani? Don't worry, you will. In the meantime, the phrase "Gucci murder" might right some bells. And no, that doesn't mean killing it in those wavy-legged 133s. The "Black Widow" of the Gucci dynasty was jailed in 1998 for hiring a hit on her ex-husband: grandson and heir Maurizio Gucci. Reggiani, who's been spotted in Milan on work-release, has asked current owner Francois-Henri Pinault for her old job back, but she's about to get notorious all over again when the film "Gucci" goes into production.

Technically a single film, Ridley Scott passing off directorial reins to his daughter Jordan squeezes this one into our fashion pairs paradigm. A-talent has been lining up to play Reggiani: Scarlett Johansson, Angelina Jolie, and the latest frontrunner, Penelope Cruz. But British actress Julie Atherton has already taken on Reggiani - and sung her, no less - in the musical "Mrs. Gucci," which workshopped a one-off performance last year as it takes aim at London's West End.