Film Review: Saint Laurent

French Biopic About Famed Fashion Designer Gives Us Glorious Surface, Poor Structure

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
Saint Laurent
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Director Jalil Lespert’s 2014 biopic Yves Saint Laurent took a look at the life of the famed French designer (as played by Pierre Niney) from the beginning of his career in 1958. Now, less than a year later, we get director Bertrand Bonello’s biopic Saint Laurent, which takes a look at the life of the famed French designer (as played by Gaspard Ulliel) from the years 1967 to 1976. Which kind of begs the question: Is Yves Saint Laurent so fascinating that we need a separate biopic for each decade of his life? I’m not exactly a massive aficionado of the fashion industry in general or of Saint Laurent in particular, so take this with a grain of salt if you need to. But I’m gonna say no.

Like dancers or painters or authors or any other creative type, fashion designers seem like fine fodder for drama—what with their tortured souls and their passionate minds and their complex, convention-flaunting love affairs. As a filmmaker Bonello certainly seems enraptured by the image of young Monsieur Saint Laurent. Ulliel
(Hannibal Rising, A Very Long Engagement), what with his mop of brown hair and his thick-framed glasses, looks as much like Saint Laurent as he does Austin Powers’ skinny little brother. (The swingin’ ’60s setting certainly adds to the effect.) But it’s hard to tell how interested Bonello is in the man behind the image.

For the length of its run,
Saint Laurent stumbles around in time, flashing back and forth with seemingly little rhyme or reason. In 1967 we see our tightlipped fashionista sitting in his surgery-room white office quietly waiting for inspiration to strike. Over in 1972 we see him lounging in a banquette at a glittery discotheque quietly observing the fabulous people as they boogie-oogie-oogie ’til they just can’t boogie no more. Is the hopping around in time really necessary? Couldn’t these scenes have taken place in the same time period? Was that one time Saint Laurent sat in a disco and said nothing in the fall of 1972 really that significant?

Clearly, Bonello is trying to set a mood. He gets a great assist from his production designer, his costume people and all the folks in the prop department. (Although this film was made without the assistance of Saint Laurent’s heirs, so none of his original designs are actually featured.) Wanna know what an upscale, amyl nitrate-fueled gay orgy looked like in 1974 Paris?
Saint Laurent nails it. But the direction is almost maddeningly languid. (You’ll feel every second of the 150-minute length.) And the script—credited to Bonello and Thomas Bidegain (Rust and Bone)—maintains a clinical, at-arm’s-length point of view at all times.

Bonello is great at capturing the look and feel of the time period. He even tosses in a few antiquated, split-screen montages. (One of which conflates seasonal fashion collections with news footage of student protests … for some reason.) But the visual flair is never enough to raise the film’s pulse above “Valium speed.” It’s admirable that the filmmaker wants to simply show us the panoply of Saint Laurent’s high life rather than explain it all to us. (Hence, the almost obsessive lack of meaningful dialogue.) We run into Saint Laurent’s two muses, Betty Catroux (model Aymeline Valade) and Loulou de la Falaise (Léa Seydoux from
Blue is the Warmest Color). But we’re barely introduced to them before they fade into the background. We meet Saint Laurent’s business partner Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Renier from In Bruges) in passing, but he’s relegated mostly to some very boring business negotiations. And Laurent himself? Well, he smokes and stares at people a lot. He seems to have been a jerk in the way that all great artists are jerks. He seems to have suffered from lifelong mental problems (“Disorders” as he calls them). He seems to have been an occasional drug addict. But all these things are implied rather than openly discussed here.

Ironic—considering the film is about a man famous for his impeccably modern tailoring—that the biopic of his life should be so formless and shapeless. It just wanders around in time, dropping in on various, seemingly unimportant moments in its protagonist’s life. If you don’t already know about the life and accomplishments of Yves Saint Laurent, you won’t be any more informed after watching this film. There’s nothing about his childhood, nothing about his inspirations, nothing about his apprenticeship to the legendary Christian Dior. Bonello never gets under the skin or into the mind of his subject. He almost acts as if explaining anything about the man in the title would be gauche in the extreme. Perhaps, in some sense, it would. But the film’s interest in surfaces—from the shiny black onyx, the silvery polished steel and the floor-to-ceiling mirrors of the era in which it’s set to the blank face of its main character—makes it a superficial glimpse behind the curtain. Admittedly, it’s a damn fine looking designer curtain, but I still want to know what else is behind it.
Saint Laurent


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