One shot in the Yves Saint Laurent biopic “Saint Laurent” captures its title character more than any other. It is the late 1960s, and the famed designer stands alone in his store on a busy Paris street. He is imprisoned by his creative successes, as well as his personal failures. Both become even stronger as throughout the film.
The image captures the fragility of an emotionally damaged individual whose revolutionary work changed women’s fashion forever. It is stylish and captivating, like the film itself.
Controversial director Bertrand Bonello’s film is unquestionably compelling, but also flawed. It is long – two and a half hours – rather humorless and centered on a main character who is not particularly likable, but certainly a zeitgeist-altering genius.
In a sign of just how vast a shadow he still casts, “Saint Laurent” is his second biopic in the last two years. The first, titled “Yves Saint Laurent,” is streaming on Netflix, and watching the two makes for a fascinating comparison.
“Yves Saint Laurent” earned the support of the late designer’s partner, Pierre Bergé, and utilized some of his actual designs. It is also thoroughly rote and crushingly dull, the type of “A to B to C” biopic that is sure to please the sycophants.
Bonello’s “Saint Laurent,” on the other hand, is the looser, unauthorized version that seems to truly capture who Saint Laurent was, and why we still care. It is the epitome of the warts-and-all biography, devoting much of its running time to the title character’s hedonistic, sex-and-drugs-fueled artistic peak.
It’s no wonder Bergé found the 2014 effort more to his liking, though in both versions, Bergé is the central figure in his life and career. (He is played in “Saint Laurent” by Jérémie Renier.)
“Saint Laurent” stars Gaspard Ulliel, who is perhaps best known stateside as the star of “Hannibal Rising.” His performance here is astounding. He disappears into the role and captures the designer’s charisma and intelligence.
Bonello is boldly uninterested in telling Saint Laurent’s story in chronological order. Therefore, as the film begins he already is a fashion world star.
It’s a domain of unhinged creativity, model-packed parties and elaborate decadence, and Bonello stages it all as an explosion of color, sound and sex. It also is an insular existence – Saint Laurent’s mother gently chastises him for not knowing how to change a lightbulb – and Bonello smartly captures this feel via a split-screen montage with models sporting Saint Laurent’s designs on one side, and archival footage of the increasingly combustible outside world (Vietnam, 1968 Paris, etc.) on the other.
Despite the clever directing of Bonello and the stunning work of Ulliel and Renier, things start to become a bit tiresome as we approach the two-hour mark, and the designer is at his lowest mental point.
However, Bonello then makes a wonderfully creative, unexpected move: He drops the aged, near-death Saint Laurent, now played by the actor Helmut Berger, into the story.
From this moment on, even as the designer mounts a successful comeback show, we continually cut to a man who seems drained of the verve of his prior decades. He putters around his decadent home, feeding the latest incarnation of his beloved dog, looking at magazines, and waiting for … something.
It’s a sad ending for a genius, one who finished life as nothing more than an eccentric figurehead. It’s also brilliant, and makes for the film’s most absorbing stretch.
“Saint Laurent” is one of the more enthralling biopics about a creative mastermind in years. At its best moments, it is a downright addictive experience, fitting for the story of a man whose most well-known fragrance was called “Opium.”
What the film has in abundance is imagination. And despite its somber portrayal of Yves Saint Laurent’s personal complexities, I think the man himself would have found the dreamlike imagery on screen to be utterly intoxicating.
Starring: Gaspard Ulliel, Jérémie Renier, Pierre Bergé, Louis Garrel
Director: Bertrand Bonello
Running time: 150 minutes
Rating: R for graphic nudity/strong sexual situations, substance abuse throughout and some language. In French with subtitles.
The Lowdown: Biopic of famed fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent at the peak of his career, from 1967 to 1976, a time of creative success and personal excess.