Last year, Jalil Lespert’s Saint Laurent biopic was first out of gate, simply but aptly titled Yves Saint Laurent. Now, Bertrand Bonello follows with the even more basically titled Saint Laurent. Evidently, the next filmmaker who tries his hand at the celebrated fashion designer’s story will have to call it Laurent, or maybe the evocative YSL. Regardless, the second duly follows the first, boasting a more famous French cast but lacking the blessing of YSL’s longtime partner, Pierre Bergé. Break your Mondrian dress out of mothballs for the American release of Bonello’s Saint Laurent (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
For the backstory, refer to Lespert. Bonello picks the film up in 1967 and just runs with the era’s excesses. Saint Laurent is poised to explode globally and Bergé, his partner (both in love and business) will make the deals to fully exploit his notoriety. Unfortunately, as the chemically infused parties blur into each other, Saint Laurent becomes increasingly preoccupied with the sexual charms of model Jacques De Bascher. From time to time, Bergé will even create a bit of a scene, but he can usually get the faithless designer to come home whenever he buys a new piece for their remarkable art collection.
That is kind of it. Bonello’s film is a rather static portrait that luxuriates in the hedonistic surface of YSL’s life and never digs into the iconic figures’ inner workings. To judge solely from the film, it is absolutely baffling how an uptight square like Bergé and a drug-soused sex addict like Saint Laurent could ever be a couple. There is no explanation of their relationship, except for an admittedly brilliant scene of them admiring a newly acquired painting. Bonello’s take on Saint Laurent is entirely an example of style over substance, but what dazzling style it is.
Although Saint Laurent spends most of the film lounging on a couch, Bonello’s camera darts and pans restlessly, soaking up the debauched nightlife. He makes inspired use of split screens, evoking a fashion magazine’s layout. Frankly, this is probably the most visually dynamic film of the year—and that counts for a lot.
Arguably, the cast-members are just accessories to the ensemble Bonello creates. Gaspard Ulliel’s Saint Laurent is a lifeless cipher who is rather unpleasant to spend time with. Helmut Berger’s third act appearance as the designer in 1989 adds little depth, serving mainly as a curtain call. Jérémie Renier conveys some of the maturity and determination of Bergé, but the film stacks the deck against him, largely portraying him a jealous lover. Adding color if not substance, Louis Garrel out-preens Maria Callas as De Bascher, while model Aymeline Valade exhibits enough snap and verve as model Betty Catroux to suggest she might have potential in a film with actual human interaction.