The light and dark hues of a landmark fashion designer are on intimate display in Bertrand Bonello’s 20th Century pastiche “Saint Laurent” – and that is no more apparent than in back-to-back scenes of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival selection that opens in Nashville Friday at Regal Green Hills Stadium 16.
In the first of those scenes we see Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) comforting an employee who is going away to have an abortion. He tells her everything will be alright and even gives her money for the procedure and any related expenses she might have. In the second we see him at a company lunch where he leans over to tell an assistant, “Madeline will be away next week.” “I know,” the assistant responds. “I’d rather she didn’t return,” is the cold reply. It is then Saint Laurent’s longtime partner and sometime lover Pierre Berge (Jérémie Renier) ironically says to all assembled, “So thank you, Yves. Thank you. You’ve always been here for women and will be for a long time.”
The emotional and physical damage caused by a nightmarish 1960 military hitch – probably engineered to get Saint Laurent out of the House of Dior he was running at 21 following Christian Dior’s death – is noted in various ways throughout the film, which focuses on the years 1967-76, when YSL was at the height of his design powers but also beginning his alcohol and drug-aided personal decline. We get references at his work, including a 1971 “Liberation” collection that drew the ire of those that thought it smacked of Vichy-era nostalgia but became a successful trendsetter, and glimpses at the burgeoning fashion empire where prêt-à-porter, not haute couture, became coin of the realm. But we also see in the days of tedious tasks and nights of never-ending indulgences a man whose physical and emotional frailty will lead him to withdraw more and more from the world as time goes on. As he writes to one of his paramours, “…I love bodies without souls, because the soul is elsewhere.”
Bonello (“The Pornographer,” “House of Tolerance”), who co-wrote the script with Thomas Bidegain (“A Prophet,” “Rust and Bone”), has not fashioned a straight biopic, however. He skillfully meanders through YSL’s life like an artist looking for more hues to clarify his subject than a chronicler dutifully setting down a chronology. It does make for a relaxed pace, but not a very languid one. And though it’s sometimes jarring – such as when we jump ahead several years to meet the older incarnation of Saint Laurent played by Helmut Berger (yes, the Austrian actor and Luchino Visconti favorite) before jumping back to Ulliel’s younger portrayal in what Bonello has called a “parallel montage” – the director keeps us involved by not allowing us to become merely reflexive viewers.
Credit his frequent contributor Josée Deshaies for cinematography that unerringly follows every shift in mood and moment; her work is as finely crafted as any of the beautiful wardrobe Anaïs Romand (who’s also worked with Bonello before and did the costuming for this year’s “Diary of a Chambermaid”) fashioned for this film – a great achievement evoking the YSL style without access to any of the great man’s designs since the feature was done without the cooperation of those now controlling his house. Kudos to Katia Wyszkop as well for the backdrops of this film – homes, offices and clubs in Paris, New York and elsewhere that reek of period, Proust and other elements connected with YSL’s life. And Fabrice Rouaud’s editing of this intricate and purposely relaxed-pace story is first-class.
Ulliel (a César Award winner for his role in “A Very Long Engagement”) is superb as the volatile YSL, so quiet and detached in one instant and then an erupting volcano (like his fury at the initially negative reaction to the Liberation collection) the next. Berger is the ruined but still lucid remains of that younger man; two very different acting instruments and styles but with Bonello’s guiding hand it’s believable they’re playing the same man at different stages of life. The Belgian-born Renier as YSL’s business partner and more conveys his character’s love, admiration, friendship, frustration and sadness with eyes and tones that say far more than any dialogue could – the real-life Berge was apparently annoyed that he wasn’t approached by Bonello for involvement as he was with another recent flick about Saint Laurent, but reading his own comments over the years one has the feeling the Renier’s characterization is largely faithful to its source.
There are also short but satisfying appearances by Aymeline Valade as Betty Catroux and up-and-comer Léa Seydoux as Loulou de la Falaise, two models that provided muses for YSL’s work, and Louis Garrel as nobleman-turned-Karl Lagerfeld-model Jacques de Bauscher, who had an intense but brief affair with Saint Laurent in the 1970s. “Saint Laurent” doesn’t forget what YSL gave to the world, but it gives us a fictionalized taste of his world that is touching, provocative and very stylish.
“Saint Laurent” opens Friday in Nashville exclusively at Regal Green Hills Stadium 16 (3815 Green Hills Village Dr.); the film is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America’s Classification and Rating Administration for “graphic nudity/strong sexual situations, substance abuse throughout and some language.” The spoken language for most of the film is French, with some English dialogue; there are English subtitles. The movie runs for 151 minutes. Check for locations and showtimes on Fandango or MovieTickets.com.