Approaching the end of Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, the entire city of Paris is abuzz with rumor. Yves Saint Laurent might be dead. The year is 1977. The audience, of course, knows this to be false (the legendary fashion designer actually died in 2008), yet within the film everyone is taken by gossip, contemplating his life and how to write the obituary. It is one of the few moments in Saint Laurent in which the artist himself is not present. Another is a business meeting about halfway through the biopic’s florid two and a half hours, in which his longtime partner Pierre Bergé (Jeremie Renier) argues over the YSL branding with American investors. A deadpan interpreter relays these important but dull discussions between French and English, highlighting the energy and beauty of Saint Laurent’s art by way of its absence from the conference room.
Both of these sequences approach the undefinable identity of a great artist. Perhaps the most poetic revelation is much earlier on. After the opening credits, Bonello takes the audience into the YSL atelier. It is here, surrounded by fabrics and light, that the women of the fashion house make the clothes. Saint Laurent himself is heard before he appears, blasting a Beethoven symphony from the floor above. The muted sounds float down onto the mannequins and through the draped garments. It is a tranquil and true expression of the role of the fashion designer, an intangible beauty wandering amongst the fabrics. Then, finally, we see him at work.
The title role is played by Gaspard Ulliel, who gives the icon a blend of aquiline grace and lean vulnerability. The film covers, roughly, the years 1967 to 1976. This is after YSL’s rise, after the Mondrian dress. Bonello may resist the typical beginning for a biopic, but he does play around with other tropes of the genre in a very engaged way. The very first scene of the film, before the opening credits, shows Saint Laurent taking refuge in a Paris hotel under an assumed name. He goes up to his room and conducts a private phone interview, telling of his time in Algeria during the war. In another film, this conversation might be used to frame the entire project, the sort of simple device used to structure middling biopics all the time. Here we do not even see the journalist, nor will he emerge later. Bonello presents this moment, lets it hit home, and then lets it go.
Fleeting, malleable style is among the film’s greatest strengths. No two scenes are exactly alike in form. This approach never feels disjointed, but rather creates the sense of a broad and diverse artistic life. We all contain multitudes, great artists even more so. The soundtrack, featuring everyone from Johann Sebastian Bach to Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, sets each individual tone perfectly. Even the fabrics can be heard, from the quiet atelier to the tactile sound of Saint Laurent and a lover sitting on a loud leather couch. The peaks often involve the use of montage, another tool often misused in lesser biopics. Bonello fast-forwards from 1968 to 1971 by juxtaposing Saint Laurent’s progressing collections with the archival footage of the international tumult of the period. He invites the viewer to compare the fashions with the world around them, directing us forward where other directors might simply let us sit before the flashing images with our minds turned off.
Saint Laurent is a whirlwind of influences. The artist listens to Maria Callas and Velvet Underground, corresponds with Andy Warhol, uses Piet Mondrian in his designs, and has an entire wall of portraits of Hollywood stars. He sees a painting of Marcel Proust’s bedroom and puts a reconstruction into his home. More than anything else he wants to be Henri Matisse. Bonello’s direction is also a celebration of influences, following in the footsteps of Luchino Visconti and inserting Mondrian’s paintings directly into the construction of the image. This is an assertion that life, and the creative life specifically, exist in constant dialogue with and adaptation of other art.
All of that is not to say that Saint Laurent isn’t also resolutely, magnificently original in its own way. The most thrilling elements of the film have to do with Saint Laurent’s affair with Jacques de Bascher de Beaumarchais (Louis Garrel). Their chemistry is staggering and electric, rare in a world with so few cinematic gay love stories, particularly with a pair of accomplished actors. If Saint Laurent looks like an eagle, de Bascher is a snake. With all of the wholesome fun of an opium den, the apartment of this wealthy playboy (and longtime boyfriend of Karl Lagerfeld) appears as a space devoted to substance abuse and achingly stylish orgies. Saint Laurent falls in headfirst.
Bonello elevates the affair from sordid diversion to harrowing mythology. The symbol of the snake is taken to its melodramatic apex, by way of a haunting scene in which a pallid reptilian entertainer performs the Cold Song from Henry Purcell’s King Arthur in a crowded, shadowy nightclub. This central erotic fascination takes Saint Laurent under the topiary mazes of nocturnal Paris, away from his stable relationship and into drug abuse. It also allows Bonello to craft one of the deepest, most triumphantly cinematic queer romances of contemporary cinema. When de Bascher stares at himself in the mirror toward the close of this section of the film, listening to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and facing the dark combination of beauty and mortality, it’s impossible to ignore that something quite special has happened.
Saint Laurent is a masterpiece that amuses, enchants, and then slinks into your bones.
The Upside: Impeccably made, deliriously sensual, and brilliantly acted, Bertrand Bonello has brought life back to the biopic with this crazed and seductive portrait of legendary fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.
The Downside: The lengthy last act takes a structural turn with the introduction of Helmut Berger as the older Saint Laurent, which takes a few minutes of mental recalibration to get used to.
On the Side: This is the second French biopic of Yves Saint Laurent of the year. The other, Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent, has the blessing of Pierre Bergé but is something of a critical disaster.
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