The challenge of squeezing the messy complexity of a person’s life into a film has been the downfall of many filmmakers, turning the biopic into a largely despised
genre. However, Bertrand Bonello’s new Saint Laurent is a mesmerizing movie that beautifully captures the essence of a great artist of 20th century fashion.
Drawing on his own background as a classically trained composer of music, Bonello has crafted a trippy and decadent work that often feels more like a poem than a traditional biopic. Eschewing the scene setting most movies start with, the film immediately plunges us deep into the world of Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) from 1967 to 1974, when the designer’s success was at its zenith and his personal life was at its nadir. Saint Laurent’s days are a whirlwind of creation for a seemingly endless series of deadlines, while his nights are a maelstrom of drinking, drugs, parties and sex. Holding everything together is his longtime lover and business partner Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Renier) who accepts Saint Laurent’s self-destructive behavior and infidelity as essential fuel for his creativity. Saint Laurent’s hijinks help him cope with the constant pressure to stay true to his vision while embracing the incessant change that fashion demands. Saint Laurent also had to retain his inner self while Bergé built a multi-million dollar business that transformed him into a corporate brand.
Crucial events like Saint Laurent’s tumultuous love affair with Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel) and the creation of some of his most famous designs figure prominently, but Bonello’s most effective choice is immersing the viewer in the strange life of this shy man who became one of the world’s most famous celebrities. In his boldest move, Bonello inserts haunting flash- forwards to 1989 that reveal the elderly Saint Laurent (played by 60s cinema icon Helmut Berger) alone in
his lavish home. Reminiscent of the final section of 2001: A Space Odyssey, these scenes dramatically evoke the increasing isolation that eventually left him a prisoner in a self-created gilded cage.
Observant filmgoers may be forgiven for thinking Saint Laurent opened last year since it follows less than 10 months after Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent, a far more conventional movie made with the cooperation of Bergé and the Saint Laurent estate. While the first film gave viewers more facts, Bonello’s brilliant and most definitely unauthorized new movie takes us deeper into the truth of the designer’s life and art.
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Dylan Skolnick can sympathize with the endless deadlines that Yves Saint Laurent faced during the day but his nights are far quieter than those enjoyed by the famed designer. He can be found most often at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington where he a co-director.