Saint Laurent (NYFF Review): A Feverish Look at a Fashion Icon

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French director Bertrand Bonello’s examination of one of fashion’s biggest names is luridly fascinating, despite its overindulgence.

Even if you’re clueless about fashion, chances are you know of Yves Saint Laurent. Perhaps you’ve heard his name casually dropped in a rap song, or glanced at his gleaming YSL logo in a store window. The designer never wanted to make clothes for just anyone, but his meteoric career has insured that his name will be remembered by just about everyone.

For those who are a little more in vogue, the Saint Laurent label is considered a mecca of style. Fashion, in its purest form, is art, and Laurent was a trailblazing artist. He forever changed people’s perception of women’s clothing, and became the first couturier to create a ready-to-wear line for stores. With such an illustrious career, it’s no wonder that Saint Laurent is one of two biopics about the late designer to come out this year.

Biopic is a strange word for this film, though. Saint Laurent often feels like a sprawling life portrait, but it really only focuses on its subject’s life from 1967 to 1976; the height of his fame and success. Bonello, who also serves as a co-writer with Thomas Bidegain, takes a zigzagged journey through this pivotal stage in Laurent’s career, focusing not on a specific timeline of events, but on the neurosis and fragility that both helped and hindered his creative process.

Played by Gaspard Ulliel (Hannibal Rising), Laurent comes off as a perplexing figure. Despite his impressive work, he appears enigmatic and unstable. He creates flawless and cutting-edge designs, but is fraught with insecurities and a substance abuse problem. Ulliel is an absorbing presence, infusing Laurent with a haunting sense of detachment. Every action he makes seems apathetic on the surface, but his expressive eyes and subtle facial twitches convey a pain that goes much deeper.

A large portion of the film deals with the people in Laurent’s life who helped make him a success. There are his model muses Loulou (Blue is the Warmest Color‘s Léa Seydoux) and Betty (Aymeline Valade), his studio director Anne-Marie Munoz (Amira Casar), and his business and romantic partner Pierre Bergé (In Bruges‘ Jérémie Renier). Not too much time is spent with any of these characters—although a surprisingly interesting business meeting scene shows Bergé’s intent on keeping the YSL brand independent—as they are merely orbiting around Laurent’s eccentric acumen. Still, their input in his life and work helps to paint a broader picture.

One character who does get a lot of screen time, however, is Louis Garrel’s Jacques de Bascher, a Karl Lagerfeld model who begins an affair with Laurent. During his time with Jacques, Laurent gives in to more hedonistic behavior, drinking and drugging more than ever before. He’s also at his most vulnerable, admitting his love for Jacques despite the initially superficial nature of their coupling. The passion of their relationship is played against its toxicity, adding an engrossing layer to Laurent’s already complex figure.

Fashion and filmmaking have long gone hand-in-hand, even before biopics like Coco Before Chanel and rom-coms like Confessions of a Shopaholic. Both mediums are inherently visual, and often thrive when they’re at their most ocularly dazzling. Bonello knows this full-well, and takes a “show, don’t tell” approach throughout most of the film. He allows near-wordless scenes to take on a life of their own. The sequence in which Jacques and Laurent first spot each other in a crowded nightclub is full of long camera pans between the two, but between the energetic music—selected and composed by Bonello himself—and the striking imagery from cinematographer Josée Deshaies, there’s nary a dull moment.

Of course, with any film of this nature, the wardrobe is of the utmost importance. Costume designer Anaïs Romand’s styling choices are impressive, especially given the fact that the film wasn’t given the YSL house’s blessing. The story may be about the man behind the clothes, but its hard to take your eyes off them whenever they come into focus. From Laurent’s own loud, expertly-tailored suits to the glittering gowns inspired by his time living in Morocco, every garment is made to look extremely desirable.

At a runtime of two and a half hours, the film does lag a bit toward the end. The downside of Bonello’s dizzying visual flare is that it often muddles the movie’s message. The last third of the film shoots frenetically between an ailing Laurent in the 70s, his triumphant 1976 fashion show, and a glimpse of his elderly self, played by Helmut Berger. Symbolism is abound to the point of overkill, and, in one supremely confusing sequence, there are so many cuts to different time periods and locations that the narrative is lost in translation.

Still, this is clearly a work of passionate auteurship, with enough grandiosity to match Laurent’s real-life lavishness. At one point in the film, the designer remarks, “I’ve fought the fight for elegance.” Saint Laurent certainly isn’t the most elegant portrayal of a fashion industry legend. It could use a bit more substance to fully articulate the the journey of its characters. That being said, you can’t deny that this movie has some serious style. Grade: B


By Mike Papirmeister

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