I have not so much to say about Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent. It is nominally a biopic about fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent; I say nominally, because Bonello eschews most of the trappings of the biographical film. There is little in the way of exposition or explanation – we are thrown into YSL’s life in 1967, and jump around, chronologically, through the year 1976 (with a few detours to 1989). There is generally little dialogue. What we learn, we learn through observation. So, this should be a slam-dunk for me, right? I generally despise biopics, and this one works against the conventions of the genre I most dislike. Call me agnostic. I found the film interesting without connecting to it much emotionally. Like its subject, Saint Laurent attempts to convey something substantial through the accumulation of surfaces; like the human form in fashion, the person at the center of this film emerges as the negative space to which substances cling, the bones around which an edifice is built, an edifice that both transforms the subject as well as obscures his “reality.”
The film begins with a confession, as YSL (Gaspard Ulliel) gives a phone interview in which he reveals some of the sordid, and potentially formative, experiences of his childhood (like much in the film, this sequence returns later to play out in full). This, along with a few flashbacks later in the film, is all that we have of YSL to “explain” him. Rather, the film focuses in on the years 1967 and 1976 because they are the years of his major collections, with the interim being the height of YSL’s influence and originality. Not that we, the audience, would know, except that the periphery of YSL’s existence makes us dimly aware of how the outside world is responding to him. There is little to none of the expected “outside” viewpoints on his work, no dramatic catwalk montages with the press and/or celebrities giving us a hint as to what is original or exciting in his work and/or why. Most of what we understand about YSL’s relationship to the outside world comes through his partner, Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Renier). Instead, we stick with YSL almost exclusively throughout the film. In the beginning, we see him at work in the atelier, a kind of back-office god who calls forth outfits, touches them, and then sends them back, while we mostly stay with the workers, going about their tasks wordlessly (this part of the film is quite fascinating). As time goes on, and YSL rises, he spends less and less time in the office, and more and more time doing drugs, having sex, and going out and about. Yes, be prepared to admire manifold people “looking cool” in this film, as this activity (I can’t even call it cruising), mostly perpetrated in nightclubs, provides a good deal of the meat of YSL’s existence. It is while clubbing that YSL meets his muses and inspirations, Loulou and Betty (Léa Seydoux and Aymeline Valade, respectively), as well as one of his lifelong loves and figures of fascination, the libertine Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel). We begin to get the general sense that YSL is sliding into non-productivity and addiction, but then he returns in force with the 1976 “Ballet Russes” collection. There are a few flash-forwards to 1989, with an elderly YSL, played by Helmut Berger, isolated, seemingly doddering, trapped in memories and surrounded by the (now empty) surface features of fame and style. However, the film does not propose a reading of YSL’s life, and so we don’t get a theory or summation of what his body of work “meant.” In fact, if the film has a thesis, it would be exactly that – YSL was tormented during his lifetime over what his work meant, and grew to view fashion as transitory (and potentially empty). He is portrayed as resenting the work’s inclusion in museums, which marks it as passe, but also transforms his home into a virtual museum, and speaks of painting with admiration, as it is a form that “lasts.” So, the film presents the artist as he who is left bereft by his art, trying to accomplish something, the gist of which largely eludes him. The film ends with false reports of YSL’s demise in the ’70s (as he was given to periods of elusiveness) – a team of glib and insipid reporters (lead by director Bonello) finally track him down, at work in his atelier, and we conclude with YSL simply smiling at reports of his own demise.
What is Bonello up to in this film? The most interesting aspect of the production, probably, is the unlikely and undramatic rendition of the creative life it provides. As a portrait of the creative process, it is honest, in that portraying such things is very difficult, the process being mostly interior, and usually furtive, even to the artist. Bonello does not try to “get around” this difficulty, and this is why long sections of the film are a bit dull (at least in terms of the narrative, if not visually). We do begin to understand the creative process with the inclusion of other people – for instance, the most fascinating part of the film (and one of the briefest) is watching a room of professionals grapple with how to transform what are basically sketches with some colored ink on them into fully realized commodities that a person will not only successfully wear, but covet. The majority of the film, however, deals with YSL off the job, in the realm of “inspiration,” one supposes. And I must congratulate Bonello, as the more YSL slides into drugs and booze, the more we too, as viewers, begin to feel the effects. Time slows down, dilates, and drags, but not in the stereotypical ways. One great, and emblematic, shot, in which de Bascher and YSL see, and cruise each other, for the first time, feels like it takes place underneath an opium-laced pillow. The camera slowly tracks from de Bascher’s side of the club, across the dance floor, dense with slowly thrashing bodies and replete with mirrored surfaces, until it finally reaches YSL’s side, and his returned glance, and then the camera slowly tracks back to de Bascher again. We fully feel the “heroic” aspect of this movement, as a great struggle against torpor and drugginess – desire in this situation being that which can keep its purpose in mind long enough to arrive, against such inertia, at its original destination. The film has many such shots, and the chronology keeps us interested, if only by mixing things up. All the same, sequences are difficult to determine. Is there a method to Bonello’s montage? The film has an orchestral feel, in that one remembers glitzy parts, and slow parts, ups, and downs, but only in a gestalt. From moment to moment, we begin to wonder “why are we here?” (And this amplifies the feeling of being drugged). There are bravura moments. At one point, Bonello splits the screen, one half showing newsreel footage from the eras of YSL’s collections, the other side presenting, one at a time, emblems of those collections on models who continually descend a spiral stair. The shot hints at didacticism without being didactic, as there are no pat points of confluence; what could have been a cheesy or lame device turns out to be quite compelling (partly because Bonello lets it run for a good while). The flash-forward to YSL in his old age, which occurs during the Ballet Russes section, is also very well done. At first, it is structured to make us feel that YSL is remembering back to this triumph, his last great contribution (his moment of timelessness, and hence art). However, we are soon back in 1976, and we discover the flash-back was actually a flash-forward; it is as if the YSL of 1976 intuits where he will wind up, how “other” he will be compared to this contemporary self, how old and strange he will one day be. It feels very similar to the sequence in 2001 in which Dave Bowman witnesses his aged self sequestered in an ornate and antique room, only to suddenly find himself occupying that room as subject, time bridged in the span of an eye’s blink. Thus we get one of many small chills up our spine. The film delivers more than a few of these, but almost always in retrospect. (Another is a sequence in which we accompany Jacques de Bascher as he awaits his death from AIDS – he is alone, in an almost white room, smiling ruefully, afflicted, and sewing an eye back onto his teddy bear, which will be buried with him). So while the film is strangely affecting, and intriguing, it is more so in hindsight; during the film, things feel unresolved and somewhat empty. Bonello is a director who has no problem being provocative – his first film, The Pornographer, features unsimulated sex in the tale of a former porn director (disturbingly played, too convincingly, by a raggedy Jean-Pierre Léaud) trying to get back into the game and rediscover his “inspiration.” What carries over from one film to the other is an unironic style and an interest in the convergence of the everyday and its exception, the obscene. Saint Laurent asks, without asking, if art that is not timeless can exist, as it tries to portray what a life dedicated, at the highest level, to ephemera as art and the different repetitions of style required for such an endless renewal, looks and feels like. Living through it might be a nightmare, or an opium dream, but by the time one has enough distance to gain clarity and reflect – does anyone remember what we were talking about?