Bertrand Bonello's couture biopic Saint Laurent explodes the tropes usually associated with the genre. By placing history (dates, events, figures) on the periphery of its main subject's self-absorbing and occasionally surreal tumult, the film avoids a clear timeline in favor of a moody, slippery narrative. Many psychological trap doors lead to countless places for traumas to hide; sometimes they slither out in the form of a black snake that torments the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) at his weakest moments. He is truly a beguiled artist, but the reasons why abound.
Covering the peak years of Yves' dominance in the fashion world (1967-1976), Saint Laurent tours a line of swanky flats with posh décor, nightclubs that gleam, and other mazes of Mise-en-scène. In a world of high-class excess and socializing, time passes by very slowly, probably because Bonello wants you to study every corner of each lavish frame. Pillows of smoke and clanging champagne glasses fill the air. The camera often pins Yves up against walls, mirrors, adorning men, and gorgeous runway models that dance like Shiva to Creedence Clearwater Revival's "I Put A Spell On You."
Style is emotion in Saint Laurent, both inside the world of the film and the formal ways Bonello connects his lead cipher with the fluctuating social issues around him. Dynamic splitscreen sequences juxtapose archival footage of late 1960s upheaval, including student protests in Paris and international colonialist collapse. Bonello fills the other half of the image with swan-like women modeling ravishingly chic dresses. This clash of seemingly disparate tones leaves us wondering which side contains truth and which one contains reality. Are the two mutually exclusive?
The darker elements of Yves' life are awakened when he starts an illicit relationship with Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel), a smooth-talking hustler who has an appetite for the erotic. Yet unlike other biopics, Bonello doesn't paint Yves' slow descent into drug addiction and alcohol abuse as a melodramatic downfall. Instead, these moments are elliptical and horrific, repeating time and again to reveal a man unable to recognize the self-portrait of deterioration staring him back in the mirror.
Grandiose experiences, both destructive and affirming, become normal for Yves. He eventually becomes numb to the idea of artistic and sexual climax. Herein lies one of the most interesting qualities of a film about the nature of genius as an enigmatic and impatient force. "It takes a lifetime to be Matisse," his mother says late in the film after Yves expresses his desire to be a master of his craft.
As a cinematic pageant of elaborate design and color, Saint Laurent has few rivals. Each lusty interior makes a stylistic statement about Yves and his mental state. Reflective surfaces are literally everywhere, providing all of these dashing characters the reflective opportunity to understand that their elegance almost never buys happiness.
By the end of Saint Laurent, which opens Friday, May 15, the active viewer has given up on trying to understand the myth and become infatuated with simply watching the man and his experiences cascade through time. The psychological aspect that so many biopics yearn for is created almost organically through Bonello's use of music and sound. No need for great speeches or trendsetting moments. Here we simply have a brilliant and conflicted wunderkind that's made himself the centerpiece of his own fragile and fragmented life picture.
Yves Saint Laurent was an emperor that made new clothes for other emperors. Yet Bonello understands that underneath the buzz and gossip of this man's public life lays an ongoing personal crisis of identity, sexuality and doubt, all relating to a fear of being found out as emotionally naked. In the fashion world, one can't imagine a greater demise.
Film reviews run weekly. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.