Radical Chic: Saint Laurent

05/06/2015 11:30 AM |
photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Saint Laurent
Directed by Bertrand Bonello
Opens May 8

For the vast majority of people who don’t give a shit about fashion, it’s easy to assume that Saint Laurent is a tedious hagiography about an intentionally vapid, disposable industry. Yet Bertrand Bonello’s film shares more DNA with Olivier Assayas’s Carlos than the September Issue (magazine or documentary), and prioritizes action, energy, and form over lengthy explications of history or psychology. This approach—in addition to being the exact opposite of 99% of all biopics—allows the latter elements to be explained by the former, and creates a multifaceted, artful portrait that can be enjoyed without previous knowledge of or vested interest in its subject.

Chronology thrown out the window, events from the French designer’s life shift around like Mondrian’s contrapuntal and abstract color tiles. The film begins with a giant “1976” imposed onto the frame as Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) checks himself into a hotel under an assumed name (Monsieur Swann, a nod to Proust). With the Eiffel Tower looming in the foreground, he begins a frank telephone interview with a journalist about his mental health, military service, and addictions; with a cut, Yves lies unconscious in a dusty pit. After the opening titles, we’re transported back to “1967” and the clean space of his Paris atelier, where dozens of women in white lab coats dash about measuring models and almost come to tears over failed stitch work. These opposing years are also opposing sides of a single creative talent: the collected, driven, detail-oriented Yves of 1967, and the cracked, insecure Yves who’s about to release the 1976 Fall/Winter “Russian collection.” This type of collision—which hits at the emotional reality that two different things can be true at the same time—is further complicated later in the film when we’re given glimpses of the designer as a despairing, senile old man undisclosed years later.

While there is a killer soundtrack for all the awesome, scary 1970s partying that goes on (in one scene, the sound of Vietnam War helicopters bleeds into a coked-up sex soiree at Karl Lagerfeld’s boy-toy’s pad), the film also works to undermine the “singular genius” understanding of history. Most of the actual work of fashion is shown being done by Yves’s inner circle of assistants, seamstresses, and his lover and business partner Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Renier), who has to keep cranky American stockholders at bay, continually expand the YSL empire, and oversee quality control. The flowing garments of the Russian collection, the film’s visually spectacular climax, are realized entirely from Yves’s sketches while he convalesces in a hospital; he appears backstage shortly before its premiere, doing a cursory inspection of models and then taking a bow on the catwalk. Whereas a lesser film might suggest this is Yves Saint Laurent’s crowning achievement, Bonello suggests it’s really the house of YSL. This formulation—“vision + divided labor + industry = art”—connects fashion to filmmaking as much as painting. Even stalwart Old Navy shoppers will have difficulty restraining themselves from standing and applauding at this group triumph.