Yves Saint Laurent is credited with introducing haute couture to style-conscious women everywhere. One of the most influential designers of the 20th century, he opened the first ready-to-wear designer boutique, redefining society’s concept of high fashion by incorporating masculine fits and dramatic angles into the more classically feminine designs of his contemporaries. Saint Laurent has inspired three films since his death in 2008, one documentary and two features—the latest from director and co-writer Bertrand Bonello (House of Pleasures, The Pornographer).
The second biopic on the late French couturist, picked up last year by Sony Pictures Classics, has been better received than the first, which came five months prior at the hands of Jalil Lespert under the Weinstein Co. Told from the perspective of Saint Laurent’s longtime business and life partner and keeper of his estate, Pierre Berge, Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent was panned as a thin soap and a reduction of Saint Laurent’s genius. The film was blessed (or burdened) with Berge’s support, where Bonello’s Saint Laurent was condemned by Berge and the YSL empire.
The two couldn’t be more different. Bonello’s unauthorized version is a daring and lavish display, a visually stunning avalanche of sensory overkill and romanticized vapidity. Just looking at the runtimes to the years they cover gives a fair representation of their differences: Yves condenses several decades into 105 minutes, while Saint Laurent is an indulgent 150 and covers nine years, 1967-1976, when its namesake was Europe’s hottest designer.
Saint Laurent slides right into life atop the fashion kingdom. Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) is already an icon, heading his own luxury fashion house and running off to Paris as necessary to “get some sleep.” His life is a revolving door of pills and gorgeous bodies, the colors rich but the fabric sheer. An early club scene, one of many, shows Saint Laurent sitting at a booth as he eyes a lithe blond (Aymeline Valade) in the corner of the dance floor, a model, already spoken for by Chanel. He approaches her about modeling an upcoming collection.
She eventually relents to his cooing requests. For “spoiled little boy” Yves Saint Laurent, earthly desires come easy, be it men in his bedroom, women on his runway, bronzed cobra heads or Matisse originals in his offices and prescription drugs for all the above. Saint Laurent won’t be facing any charges for idolizing its leading man—his fierce drug and alcohol addiction, flagrant self-involvement and rampant promiscuity are pushed to the forefront. Bonello’s every decision exposes both the brightest or darkest corners of Saint Laurent’s life—impulse over control, lust over love, self over other.
That deliberation is also apparent in how Bonello handles Berge (Jeremie Renier). Though Berge and Saint Laurent were partners in love and business, the romantic interest is clearly the designer’s destructive relationship with blue-blood playboy Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel). Berge runs the business, cleans up legal and PR messes and stays behind the scenes. Responsibility isn’t exciting and stability is the death of creativity, so Saint Laurent pines for de Bascher in desperate love letters or from opposite sides of a neon-lit club; the latter is a shamelessly long-winded scene set to the funky soul vibrations of Patti Austin’s “Didn’t Say a Word,” the camera slowly panning from de Bascher to Saint Laurent across a dark mess of dancing bodies.
Ulliel, who played a different kind of man-eater in 2007’s Hannibal Rising, exudes Saint Laurent’s vulnerability and emotional vacancy without losing his distinguished air or tasteful flamboyance. He’s a class act, even as a naked, knocked out, bloody heap on the floor. Both Ulliel and Garrel disappear into their roles, with no small amount of help from costume designer Anais Romand, who won a Cesar Award for her work. The looks are flawless—what Saint Laurent lacks in substance it more than makes up for in style.
The elaborate set designs belong in a Guggenheim exhibit, and light flatters even the slobber of French bulldogs. The editing is its own spectacle; Fabrice Rouaud makes use of split-screen montages on more than one occasion, once as black-and-white war protest footage projected alongside a showcase of various Saint Laurent pieces, another as a multi-frame sequence during the unveiling of his iconic 1976 Russian collection.
Even the most frustrating aspects of Saint Laurent reflect the film’s subject and the lens through which his world is seen: trivial, tedious, overdrawn and bizarre, with many moments of genius throughout.
Character identity is wholly defined by Saint Laurent. There are no backstories, no subplots, no context other than that of his whims. He is the center of the universe and the people in it exist only as he relates to them. The film’s only intriguing relationship drops off without a word; close friends and known muses Loulou de la Falaise (Lea Seydoux) and Betty Catroux (Aymeline Valade) sashay in and out of the film without consequence. Remarks on the elusive and fickle yet undeniably seductive nature of fashion are heard more than once from more than one character—variations on the designer’s famous assertion, “Fashion fades, style is eternal.”
“I love bodies without souls because the soul is elsewhere,” he writes in a scene to his now-estranged Jacques de Bascher. That may be so, and Saint Laurent won’t bring anyone closer to Yves. But it does capture why he loved them so much.
Director: Bertrand Bonello
Writers: Thomas Bidegain, Bertrand Bonello
Starring: Gaspard Ulliel, Louis Garrel, Jeremie Renier, Aymeline Valade, Lea Seydoux, Helmut Berger
Release Date: May 8, 2015