No fewer than two French biopics about Yves Saint Laurent have been released in the last two years, suggesting that a competitive rush to make the Saint Laurent film began immediately following his death in 2008. Such antagonistic haste also proposes that the French see Laurent as a cultural icon sufficiently complex enough to warrant stories centering on his personal life, rather than on his design work. Director Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent falls regrettably far down the rabbit hole of private melodrama. While director Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent also features its share of smashing-plates domestic disputes, Bonello’s film fortunately manages to avoid turning the tragedy-lite of romantic drama into unintentional parody.
Saint Laurent is a biopic in short, narrowing its scope to 1967–1976 and using flashbacks and flash-forwards to touch on other periods of its subject’s life. Viewers are introduced to Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) at a tender thirty-one, already extremely successful: head of a fashion house that bears his name; involved in a romantic and business partnership with the stable, extremely wealthy Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Renier); generally recognized and lauded as a creative genius. But Saint Laurent is barreling towards crisis. “I’m thirty-three and I feel one hundred,” he laments. And so, in the stereotypical manner of aging child prodigies, he rebels.
Bonello uses a split-screen edit and archival footage to fit Saint Laurent’s initial desire for freedom into the broader culture of protest of the late sixties. However, Saint Laurent’s rebellion is more hedonistic than political, and perhaps primarily personal; he cruises, drinks, and takes a remarkable array of uppers, downers, and psychedelics. In the thick of Parisian club culture his behavior is not particular noteworthy, and the film suggests that Saint Laurent hit bottom primarily by way of his relationship with Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel), the handsome, kept boyfriend of Karl Lagerfeld. De Bascher is a worthy match for the bacchanalian Saint Laurent, even outdoing him by introducing him to the world of S&M.
But what does any of this have to do with fashion? The film suggests that the flip side of Saint Laurent’s brilliance is a frail psychological constitution. The trope of the tortured genius is a tired one, and nothing in Bonello’s movie clarifies the chicken-or-egg problem: Is Saint Laurent so talented because all of his energy is intentionally channeled towards design, and therefore away from psychological balance? Is his innate genius, and resulting fame, too much to bear, therefore causing him to desire escape? Either way, film viewers are not Laurent’s analyst, and may start to lose interest after the millionth pill pop.
At best, Saint Laurent can be interpreted as a snapshot of the times. Seen through that lens, Saint Laurent’s experiments within a specific social scene influence his designs, creating a link between private, professional, and cultural. But the film only alludes to these connections, and not enough screen time is given to Saint Laurent’s work for viewers to develop a lasting impression of his evolving style. In the end, Saint Laurent is a convincing portrait of 1970s culture, but not a particularly deep one of its protagonist.
Good cinematography and great editing save Saint Laurent from the caricatural fate of Yves Saint Laurent. Bonello’s film is eye candy, full of beautiful lighting and gorgeous color. A scene of two models, one nude, one in a suit, being photographed in a dimly-lit Parisian street, is a poster scene for the ability of lighting to create mood and interesting geometry with moving subjects. And the film’s editors must have a keen nose for fake emotion; cuts inevitably happen the instant before a scene becomes too histrionic. Sometimes a plot’s climax is cut, expertly relying on the art of allusion to carry the story.
Biopics are constrained by pretensions to truthfulness. Perhaps Saint Laurent portrays its tortured, self-involved, artistic genius of a subject relatively faithfully. If such accuracy applies, it only makes the case for untruthfulness in biopics in service of a better story. Adding depth to Saint Laurent’s character — a more convincing portrayal of his friendships, a hint of normalcy — might have made the catastrophes of his addictions and psychological tortures feel truly tragic.