Yves Saint Laurent used to say that he was the last of the great couturiers. He is also the only one who has been the subject of two biopics in less than six months. While Jalil Lespert’s insipid Yves Saint Laurent opened to fair reviews, critics at the Cannes Film Festival were less than enthused about Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent. Were two biopics within a year really necessary?
A better film would have been a combination of both. Except for one problem: While Yves Saint Laurent was pre-approved by the late designer’s lover and business partner Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent was not. The former is a sterile tribute, the latter depicts him as a recluse, meticulous in his work to the point of tyranny and focuses mostly on his self-destructive streak. And it quickly becomes tedious as there seems to be only two scenes that keep alternating for two hours and thirty minutes. Hit the jump for my Saint Laurent review.
Yves Saint Laurent had it all at a young age. He came from a wealthy background. Exceptionally talented, he won first prize in a competition at age 17; at 20, he had made a name for himself at Dior; at 22, he already had his own brand; and by the time he turned 25, he was an internationally acclaimed designer and a few years later famous enough for Andy Warhol to paint his portrait. Hailed as a genius, Bonello sets forth to discover his folly.
The director focuses only on one decade of Saint Laurent’s life – 1967 to 1976, smack in the midst of France’s sexual revolution and all the drug abuse and debauchery that fame and money could afford.
The film opens in 1974, with the designer (played by Hannibal Rising‘s Gaspard Ulliel), sporting large sunglasses, checks into a Paris hotel. When the hotel clerk asks if he’s in Paris on business, Saint Laurent replies, “No, to sleep.” A very telling line. Once in his room, he calls a reporter saying that he agrees to do the interview in which he reveals his past as a patient in a military hospital where he received psychoactive drugs and electroshock treatment. Bergé (Jérémie Renier) later bans the interview from publication, threatening a lawsuit for libel and perjury.
Jump back in time to the late Sixties inside Yves Saint Laurent’s design atelier on Rue Spontini in Paris. A haute couture collection is in preparation. The seamstresses in their white laboratory jackets are hard at work, frustrated or even crying and their meticulous work is subject to scrutiny; the reserved Monsieur St. Laurent is a perfectionist in his work.
Ulliel bears an uncanny resemblance to Saint Laurent. He inhabits his character, his mannerisms and his voice, while Louis Garrel plays — and poses — as the handsome It-Dandy of the period, Jacques de Bascher. A decadent character who greatly contributed to Saint Laurent’s downward spiral into drugs, alcohol and debauchery, Jacques was also Karl Lagerfeld’s long-term companion.
Saint Laurent gnaws on obscenity and self-destruction. Bonello’s idea was to depict the designer through his impulsive streak — because aren’t all great artists self-destructive? YSL is a recluse character full of contradictions. There is fear and self-loathing in him. Despite its deliberate grittiness and edge, Saint Laurent comes off as sugarcoated as Lespert’s biopic. It lacks balance, substance and a storyline, which is as thin as the models. We see Saint Laurent either surrounded by his muses, Betty Catroux (Aymeline Valade) and Loulou de la Falaise (Léa Seydoux), or partying and overindulging in drugs.
The movie’s strength rests on its sunning aesthetics, much like Bonello’s 2011 film L’Apollonide (House of Tolerance). The designer’s fevered hallucinations involving snakes are refined and elegant. Shot on 35mm film, it lends colors and textures that translate the visuals of that era. Visually we travel back in time and back… A lot… The film continually time-jumps but it adds nothing to the film. It isn’t confusing, just annoying.
About an eternity later, as the movie is coming to a close, Old Yves (Helmut Berger) is drawing his final breaths at home while models strut down the runway showing his seminal 1976 collection, a year that marked the death of his amorous relationship with Bergé. (Saint Laurent died in 2008 of brain cancer.) It is a lengthy scene and any poetry Bonello wants to convey is lost.
Warlier, a split-screen montage piece shows Saint Laurent’s collections being modeled on one screen and world events, violence and the May 1968 protests on the other. Why show news images? Bonello does not explain the relevance, whether it is merely to show the historic events of the time or how amid the world’s ugliness — and sometimes his own — Saint Laurent created beauty.
Saint Laurent hits theaters in France on October 1. A U.S. release date will soon be announced.