Film Review of the Week: Saint Laurent

Not to be confused with the 2004 documentary Yves Saint Laurent: His Life and Times or the 2014 biopic Yves Saint Laurent, Saint Laurent (which is, in fact, another biopic released in France in 2014) opens Friday at the Cedar Lee. Please be apprised up front that it's two-and-a-half hours long.

Saint Laurent's subject and protagonist: the French fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent (obvi) during the turbulent, sartorially resplendent late '60s and early '70s. Saint Laurent is here portrayed by the handsome and dispassionate Gaspard Ulliel, whom you've probably never seen but about whom it suffices to say that his face is a refined Euro-mishmash of Rodrigo Santoro, Channing Tatum, Andy Samberg and Eddie Redmayne. He captures YSL in his prime: confident, magnetic, oft-imperiled by marathon benders. But neither he nor the outrageous clothes can save the film from its burly run time and its lack of narrative focus.  

Important to mention: Some aspects of behind-the-scenes fashion are captivating on screen. Others are not. The seamstress-designer dynamics during the frantic progression from sketch to runway, for instance, or the perpetual engorgement of Saint Laurent's daily calendar, seem fun and insidery, especially in an industry about which most of us know very little beyond Project Runway. The business side, on the other hand, may as well be dramatizations of legal transcripts. There's a torturous scene where Saint Laurent's lover and business partner Pierre Berge (Jeremie Renier) communicates, through a translator, at a conference table, with an American businessman about YSL's mainstream market trajectory and branding. It feels about 45 minutes long.

The film begins, though, with an exhausted Saint Laurent recounting his story to a journalist by phone from a hotel room in 1974. We then follow Saint Laurent — after his days at Dior, already an established genius and innovator — back through his haute couture designs of the late '60s.

After hours, he's a staple of Paris' orgiastic nightlife. He takes up with the mustachioed tomcat socialite Jacques de Bascher, who hosts kinky, pill-laden parties when the clubs have closed. (If you're uncomfortable with gay sex, Saint Laurent is not exactly for you).

He cavorts with models and industry luminaries. He travels to Morocco on a whim to sketch and do drugs in peace. He drinks non-stop. La At some point we're slingshot to 1989, whereafter an aged Sainturent (now played by Helmut Berger) sketches in a borderline-schizophrenic decline.

An important seasonal show functions as the film's climax and finale, but its significance in the Saint Laurent catalogue is unclear. For the film's final third, a depressed Saint Laurent does little but mourn the abrupt end of his relationship with de Bascher (orchestrated by a jealous and ambitious Berge). And though he manages to find the requisite inspiration to produce workable drawings, whence the inspiration came remains a mystery.

Saint Laurent is cast as a trailblazer and visionary, a man who (as a Warhol analog) brought high fashion to the masses. But what he wants — fame? companionship? escape? — remains hugely inaccessible, despite what feels like an eternity trying to triangulate.

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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