PRINT May 2015


Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent

Bertrand Bonello, Saint Laurent, 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 150 minutes. Loulou de la Falaise (Léa Seydoux), Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel), and Betty Catroux (Aymeline Valade). Photo: Carole Bethuel.

BEYOND MERELY RECAPITULATING the high and low points of a celebrated life, Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent distills a mood and a milieu. This heady, sinuous biopic of Yves Saint Laurent (1936–2008), arguably the greatest couturier of the second half of the twentieth century, forgoes the tedious birth-to-death arc found in so many films of the genre to focus instead on the years 1967 to 1977. The time frame may be restricted, but the decade depicted was marked by YSL’s most storied excesses, whether in the atelier, on the runway, at the discotheque—or at the orgy. Bonello, who cowrote Saint Laurent’s script with Thomas Bidegain, honors his subject’s design genius and dissipation equally, without banalizing either.

That Bonello has found ways to invigorate material rehearsed several times before only adds to his project’s singularity. Saint Laurent is the fifth feature-length work on the eminent designer, following three documentaries (David Teboul’s 2002 diptych Yves Saint Laurent: His Life and Times and Yves Saint Laurent: 5 Avenue Marceau 75116 Paris and Pierre Thoretton’s L’amour fou of 2010) and Jalil Lespert’s biopic Yves Saint Laurent, which was released in France just four months before Bonello’s film premiered at Cannes last May. Concentrating on the years 1957 (when YSL became the head of Dior at the age of twenty-one) to 1976, Lespert’s movie dramatizes several of the same incidents found in Bonello’s, but with the dutiful, dull, never-too-undainty pageantry that typifies the docudrama. (Significantly, of the two biopics, only Lespert’s was made with the cooperation of Pierre Bergé, YSL’s partner in love and/or business for fifty years and the tenacious guardian of his legacy.)

Resisting soap operatics, Bonello instead emphasizes the sensory, occasionally disorienting the viewer. As in the director’s House of Pleasures (2011), which traces the final months of an upscale Parisian brothel at the dawn of the twentieth century, Saint Laurent isn’t moored to a strict chronological presentation. The movie opens in 1974, as YSL—played by Gaspard Ulliel, whose strong resemblance to the lithe, oddly handsome designer certainly enhances but never overpowers the actor’s intelligent interpretation—checks into a hotel as M. Swann, the pseudonym alluding to the couturier’s beloved fellow aesthete and neurasthenic, Proust. This scene, as well as a few others, will later be repeated but shot from a different angle; further scrambling the sense of time is the unheralded apparition, roughly two-thirds into the movie, of a senescent Saint Laurent, a fatigued figure who reappears intermittently. Though voiced by Ulliel, the elder YSL is embodied by a different actor altogether: the felicitously cast Helmut Berger, sybaritic superstar of 1960s and ’70s Euro-cinema.

Again recalling the belle epoque atmospherics of House of Pleasures, in which the “reek of sperm and champagne” cuts through the bordello’s opium haze, Saint Laurent intoxicates through its precisely observed hedonism. (Ripe with voluptuous imagery, both films were shot by Josée Deshaies, the cinematographer for all of Bonello’s work.) Crucial members of Saint Laurent’s orbit—such as muses and models Betty Catroux (Aymeline Valade) and Loulou de la Falaise (Léa Seydoux)—make their first appearances at nightclubs, low-ceilinged pleasure domes that Bonello populates with scores of bodies agilely gyrating to expertly chosen Northern-soul nuggets. A disco will also be the setting for YSL’s first encounter with Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel), an aristocratic debauchee who led the designer into further dissolution; his baleful, wolfish appeal is immediately apparent as the two men cruise each other across a packed dance floor, the crowd ecstatically grooving to Patti Austin’s “Didn’t Say a Word.”

For as much attention as Bonello devotes to the period of extreme libertinage Saint Laurent shared with de Bascher, which nearly destroyed the couturier and his relationship with Bergé (Jérémie Renier), the filmmaker never loses sight of his subject’s prodigious gifts with the cut and fall of fabric. Rarely has a movie with fashion at its center been so invested in showing the actual labor and artistry involved in creating haute couture. (Denied access to the archives and outfits housed in the Fondation Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint Laurent, Anaïs Romand, the film’s costume designer, essentially had to re-create two YSL collections, from 1971 and 1976, from scratch.) Tellingly, Saint Laurent ends with the fashion icon back in the atelier, wearing the plainest of uniforms: a white smock coat.

Saint Laurent opens in New York and Los Angeles on May 8, following a retrospective of Bertrand Bonello’s work at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York (through May 4). The exhibition “Yves Saint Laurent: Style Is Eternal” will be on view at the Bowes Museum, County Durham, UK, July 11–Oct. 25.

Melissa Anderson is a frequent contributor to Artforum.