2014, R, 151 min. Directed by Bertrand Bonello. Starring Gaspard Ulliel, Jérémie Renier, Louis Garrel, Léa Seydoux, Amira Casar, Aymeline Valade, Helmut Berger.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., May 22, 2015
This second of two film portraits in two years of the iconic French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent announces itself as something different in its very first frames. The film skips his fresh-faced years and opens in 1974, with Saint Laurent (Ulliel) haggard from fame and self-abuse. He checks into a hotel room under an alias (Monsieur Swann – he has a petit Proust fixation) in order to sleep, but he winds up in a ditch anyway. Just what is he trying to sleep off? Too much sex, drugs, and the stress of extreme success, one gathers from the rest of the film, which tracks the designer from 1967 to his death in 2008.
Fittingly, the craftsmanship is impeccable: Saint Laurent’s great achievement is its look, a resplendent re-creation of the era. Fine duds, indeed, but underneath is a shapeless story and an irritatingly remote central character. Two of the designer’s great muses and lifelong friends are introduced in early, equally mesmerizing scenes – Betty Catroux (Valade) rules a disco floor with her androgynous cool, while the turban-wearing Loulou de la Falaise (Seydoux) is a chummy cuddler – but they recede into the background as attractive accessories. His professional and romantic partnership with Pierre Bergé (Renier) is established as fact, but curiously underutilized as dramatic material. (Though the film largely takes Saint Laurent’s perspective, the most electric character-to-character interplay happens in a scene in which he’s absent, with Bergé finessing a boardroom meeting that will determine behind closed doors the direction of his lover’s company.) Belatedly, it becomes clear that the whole film has been building toward the love affair that was arguably Saint Laurent’s ruin. At another disco, in another decade, the designer locks eyes with a slick playboy named Jacques de Bascher (Garrel), who for a time hopped between Saint Laurent’s bed and rival designer Karl Lagerfeld’s, though the film doesn’t do anything with that information. Director Bertrand Bonello nails their electric first connection, but loses the thread. He lavishes screen time on their excesses – one particular drug binge is deeply unpleasant to watch – but those minutes are rendered empty when the film refuses to confront the morning after.
Virtually unchallenged in his heyday, Saint Laurent was a rock star in his field; if his drug and sex spiral feels overly familiar, it’s because any number of rock biopics have circled the same drain. Saint Laurent gets across how isolating celebrity can be, how exhausting it is to keep a toehold on top of a mountain that keeps shifting underfoot. But the film is allergic to insight: It’s as numbed-out as its hero addict.