Two films within the space of a year about the man behind Mondrian dresses and Le Smoking suggests Yves Saint Laurent was much more than a gifted fashion designer and a finger-on-the-pulse trendsetter. But neither Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent or this latest offering from Bertrand Bonello adequately explain the fascination with a man whose personal life, although far removed from the glamour of the catwalk, was not exceptional. Bonello’s Saint Laurent, which has just been selected to represent France in next year’s Acadamy Award’s foreign language section, is a darker, more complicated, stylish film than Lespert’s. He concentrates on Saint Laurent”s most productive and influential decades leaving aside his early years in Algeria and the time spent as an assistant to Christian Dior. His leading man is less shy and self-effacing and more a fragile, troubled, artist controlled by his one-time lover and business partner, Pierre Bergé.
An opening scene with Saint Laurent preparing an haute couture collection sets the tone for what follows. The workshop is a soulless, semi-sweatshop where seamstresses beaver away to bring YSL’s drawings to life while the Great Man (Gaspard Ulliel) sits in his Ivory Tower listening to classical music and trying to connect with his muse. It appears haute couture à la YSL is a joyless, intense business with women reduced to a series of measurements and standards of perfection strangely at odds with creating beautiful clothes for rich women. While Bergé turns YSL into a money-making machine, branching out into perfumes and ready-to-wear collections, the young designer’s health and sanity begin to crumble. He gradually descends into a drug and drink-induced oblivion which pushes him closer and closer to self destruction.
Bonello barely acknowledges Saint Laurent’s most famous fashion triumphs while his love-affair with the rakish Karl Lagerfeld protégé, Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel), is detailed in all its debauched glory. Only the Moroccan collection is given any real scope interspersed with an odd detour into Saint Laurent as an old man. The older designer is played by Austrian-born Helmut Berger with a voice dubbed by Ulliel and adds unnecessary length to a film already running over two hours long.
All credit to Bonello for skilfully recreating the spirit of Saint Laurent’s couture collections. This film was not given the backing of Pierre Bergé and there was no access to the Saint Laurent archives for the clothes. This meant the couture collections were recreated so as not to infringe on copywrite. The willowy Ulliel is a convincing Saint Laurent managing to make him selfish and manipulative while seemingly vacuous and misunderstood. And Garrel is outstanding as the smouldering aristocrat who stole Saint Laurent’s heart and nearly his sanity. The rest of the cast of high-profile, highly talented actors is woefully underused. Jérémie Renier as Bergé and Léa Seydoux as the model Loulou de la Falaise are often little more that bit players downplaying the important roles they held in Saint Laurent’s life.