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Originally published May 18, 2014 at 6:06 AM | Page modified May 19, 2014 at 12:37 PM

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Haute couture on the screen at SIFF

In a pair of new films screening at SIFF, two young designers, 65 years apart, step into the lead role at the storied Dior fashion house.


Seattle Times movie critic

Film preview

Seattle International Film Festival

Through June 8 at SIFF Cinema Uptown, Egyptian, Harvard Exit and Pacific Place; also at Lincoln Square (through May 29), Renton Ikea Performing Arts Center (May 22-28) and Kirkland Performance Center (May 29-June 1); 206-324-9996 or siff.net. Printed festival guides available at all SIFF venues and many Starbucks locations.

“Yves Saint Laurent” screens at 8:30 p.m. May 30 at Kirkland Performance Center and at 6:30 p.m. May 31 at Pacific Place. “Dior and I” screens at 6:30 p.m. May 17 at Pacific Place, 1 p.m. May 18 at Lincoln Square, and 4:30 p.m. May 22 at the Uptown.

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In an early scene in “Yves Saint Laurent,” a film about the legendary fashion designer screening at the Seattle International Film Festival, a very young Saint Laurent approaches a model in the House of Dior atelier. It’s 1957, and she’s dressed in an impeccably tailored long-sleeved black gown that’s exquisite but lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. Gazing at her, Saint Laurent rips decisively into a nearby bolt of white fabric, which in his hands suddenly becomes an elegantly draped sash. The dress, now playfully chic, is transformed.

It’s a little moment of magic that the best films about fashion designers show us: how an artist can look at a simple piece of cloth and find beauty in a drape, a twist, a seam. (In 2009’s “Coco Before Chanel,” Audrey Tautou’s Chanel would stroke a length of fabric before cutting into it, as if perhaps getting to know it.) SIFF this year has two such movies, both about a designer walking into the storied fashion house and making it his own.

“Yves Saint Laurent,” directed by French filmmaker Jalil Lespert, is a conventionally structured biopic, with the young French actor Pierre Niney transformed into YSL by donning the designer’s trademark glasses. The wunderkind designer began working at Christian Dior when barely out of his teens — and was stunned when, after Dior’s unexpected death of a heart attack at age 52, he found himself head designer. As the film progresses, we watch this gawky, nervous young man become a confident if troubled tastemaker who quickly left Dior to start his own fashion house. And we see a delicious parade of YSL fashion over the decades: the soft, neutral lines of his early collections that echoed Dior’s trademark New Look; the famous Mondrian colorblocked shifts; the “Le Smoking” (a sexy, and innovative, women’s tuxedo suit).

In contrast, “Dior and I” is a behind-the-scenes fashion documentary, from a filmmaker who’s made something of a specialty of that genre. Frédéric Tcheng was co-producer, co-editor, and camera operator for 2009’s delightful “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” a frothy look at the life and work of the Italian couturier Valentino Garavani. (In that film, which made stars of the designer’s six pugs, the beautiful clothes almost took a back seat to Valentino’s almost comically lavish lifestyle.) Tcheng then directed “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” a portrait of the ever-quotable fashion editor. “Arrange to be born in Paris,” Vreeland once said. “After that, everything follows quite naturally.”

Now, with “Dior and I,” Tcheng brings us another moment of transition in the venerable fashion house. In 2012, Belgian-born designer Raf Simons, formerly of Jil Sander, presented his first collection for the House of Dior (after John Galliano’s dismissal). Though the stoic Simons — and, in actor voice-over, the words of Dior — is very much a presence in the film, “Dior and I” truly goes behind the scenes, introducing us to the women of the atelier who sew every stitch. We see them, in white gloves, carefully handling the fabric, sweeping up a soft rainbow of snippets, meticulously translating an artist’s vision into something that can be worn and loved.

At the over-the-top, flower-bedecked runway show in the film’s final act, we see many of these women in the background, their white coats traded for dress-up clothes. They know every seam and every thread of these intricate garments, like intimate friends; now it’s time to say goodbye. “It’s been ours for six weeks,” says a smiling veteran of the Dior atelier, of a gown. “Then we have to let it go.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com



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