Saint Laurent is a film about the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. That much is true, but the style and the method employed by the director, Bertrand Bonello, defies the simple categorization that usually applies to a biographical drama, or biopic, as the genre is now referred to in movie slang. The film doesn’t provide any background information, but simply plunges you into its world, a potent strategy, since most of the story takes place during those wildly confusing times, the 1960s and 70s. I don’t follow fashion, and in fact know next to nothing about it, but Bonello doesn’t expect or even want us to, I think, because he takes the point of view of an imagined participant rather than an omniscient observer.
Gaspard Ulliel portrays Saint Laurent, a slim, handsome man in horn-rimmed glasses who seems most at home by himself, sketching designs for dresses by himself. It’s a remarkable performance, evoking a personality that, despite an engaging smile, is mostly distant and self-contained. Even during erotic play with his lover and indispensable business partner, Pierre Bergé, played by Jeremie Renier, part of him seems far away. He’s more comfortable with the adoration of his female assistant designers and models, especially his two muses, Betty, a tall blonde beauty played by Aymeline Valade, serene and glamorous and amazing on the dance floor, and Loulou, a witty charmer played by Léa Seydoux, who inspires the designer with her outfits culled from flea markets and her mother’s hand-me-downs. But then the entry of a dissolute young man named Jacques de Bascher, played by Louis Garrel, introduces Saint Laurent to a passionate obsession. That this coincides with the ingestion of prodigious amounts of alcohol and prescription drugs is a symptom not only of a time when gay men still had to conceal who they were, but of an untapped well of pain within Yves’ psyche. The energy needed to revolutionize fashion had to take away from any energy devoted to private life.
The real star of the picture is the lush baroque visual style and languid editing rhythm, in which time seems to stand still on occasion, and later in the film shifts back and forth between past and future. One split-screen sequence pairing off the political turmoil in the streets during the 60s with a series of models showing Saint Laurent’s increasingly startling creations is the film’s one humorous comment on the period. For the most part we feel enclosed by the hermetic quality of Saint Laurent’s genius—the poverty of his emotional life played out in the midst of outrageous luxury. Bonnel avoids moralizing or giving us lessons—this is a film of feelings rather than concepts. The treatment is ultimately epic: two and a half hours of isolation and intensity culminating in an amazing and triumphant 1976 show revealing the so-called “Ballet Russes” collection.
After experiencing the intoxication of the brilliant film Saint Laurent, it may take you a few days to recover.