Written by Bertrand Bonello and Thomas Bidegain
Directed by Bertrand Bonello
Expressing his appreciation for a painting of Proust’s bedroom, Yves Saint Laurent says, “There’s so much fidelity in it. The artist didn’t eclipse his subject.” Something similar can be said of Bertrand Bonello’s biopic of the iconic woman’s fashion designer, as the film seems content with offering fleeting glimpses of its subject drinking, smoking, pill-popping, and sketching in fervid bursts rather than trying to understand him. It doesn’t pontificate or wax philosophical or dig deeply into Saint Laurent’s psyche. It treats the man more like a piece of art to be displayed and observed. (To be fair, this year’s other Saint Laurent biopic, Yves Saint Laurent, does try to explain the man, and it fails pretty hard, so maybe Bonello has the right idea.)
Gaspard Ulliel, perhaps finally cleansed of the disaster known as Hannibal Rising, is wonderfully slight as Laurent. He has the tiny, discrete mannerisms, the flickering eyes that hide behind prominent plastic frames, the flamboyant way he dangles his cigarette in his left hand. There’s definitely something churning behind those eyes glazed over from so many whiskeys and so many pills: something sad, and lonely, and more than a little self-destructive. But the film is less interested in exploring these demons than it is just throwing them up on screen in flashy colors, which is unfortunate for Ulliel.
Certain moments of neurotic longing are sustained (we get several extended glimpses of Yves sitting and smoking in lonely isolation at clubs and parties, in case you forgot that he’s lonely); others are bypassed, or perhaps left on the cutting room floor like so much silky scrap. People drift in and out of Saint Laurent’s life, like autumn leaves in a passing breeze, but none are fleshed out. Louis Garrel is fantastic as Jacques, Ives’ sometimes lover, but the role is hollow. It requires Garrel to smile seductively and lock eyes with Yves from across a room pulsating with stroboscopic lights, laze about in a drug-induced haze, and, for a brief moment, stare sorrowfully. That Garrel makes the character somewhat memorable is a testament to the actor’s quiet but commanding screen presence, and his passionate chemistry with Ulliel. He lingers on screen long after he ceases to be a part of the narrative.
Late in the film, when several newspaper writers ponder Saint Laurent’s death (he’s not really dead, and will go on to live another three decades), they seem to know all about his drug and alcohol problems. This is a bit surprising, since we’re shown nothing of the public view of Saint Laurent. The film plays it as if he dexterously kept his afflictions shrouded, which, apparently, was not the case.
It’s lazy moments like this that plagued the aesthetically stunning Saint Laurent. Like Laurent’s ebullient dresses, Josee Deshaies’ 35mm photography and camerawork are often gorgeous, with bountiful lush colors, playful lensing, and occasional screen-splitting, channeling the modern art that Saint Laurent once aspired to create. The baroque ornamentation of Bonello’s film is apt for its subject, but it never amounts to anything substantial. Additionally, there are some serious pacing issues here. It moves languidly, which is fine, but it becomes stricken with a weird time-hopping thing in the final third. We jump ahead to the older, sickly Saint Laurent, with his thin wispy lips and slick forehead and pulled-back hair stained xanthic from years of heavy smoking. He’s concerned that he’s a has-been, a museum piece ready for curation. That’s kind of how the film treats him, too.
– Greg Cwik