Fashion biopics are slippery beasts – in their attempt to capture something ephemeral yet iconic, they subsequently turn familiar and forgettable, favouring ravishing style and pretty shots over meaty substance. Bertrand Bonello’s portrait of the late doyen of high-couture fashion, the second of two high-profile Yves Saint Laurent biopics in the last twelve months, has both style and substance but still a mere inch away from getting under the subject’s skin. It goes to show that perhaps no one has the last word about the creative force behind the luxe fabrics and tailoured suits other than the man himself. While I haven’t seen Jalil Lespert’s version, Bonello’s Saint Laurent comes quite close to demystifying the life of the haute couturier, his creative process, his stellar success and subsequent nihilistic low.
Thankfully, Bonello’s approach belongs to a superior kind – understated, restrained and less showy than many other flashy biopics (except for his catwalk shows where he employs split-screens). He charts Laurent’s creative peaks through hushed yet quietly elegant scenes almost free of background music, whereas other filmmakers would result to montage and rapid-fire editing. There’s some admirable craft in these moments, illustrating that the creative process need not to be like theatre but a private affair mostly spent in offices and drawing rooms where Laurent silently sketches away with a pencil and paper, brimming with quiet intelligence and vision while cigarettes burn endlessly throughout these sessions.
But it’s not all that thoughtful – often Bonello unimaginatively utilises archival material juxtaposed with models strutting his key creations to remind you which collection and decade it belongs. And quite a few scenes are spent on tediously charting drug-riddled episodes that fuel few other biopics of conflicted, ennui-ridden artists. You may also contend that fashion life is vacuous and meaningless, but that’s partly the point of Saint Laurent. Behind the extravagant gloss, Bortello reveals the loneliness, existientialist burden of the man in the immaculate suit. Fashion is transient, and so is love and life, and Laurent is painfully aware every waking minute of his existence, descending into hedonism, excess and drug hell. Gaspard Ulliel, utterly divine in the role, embodies Laurent as graceful, soft-spoken, fiercely creative yet vulnerable, fragile and anguished, weary of his life’s decadent yet fleeting pleasures. His blue eyes simmers with unspoken angst beneath those horn-rimmed spectacles. The two men of his life, Jérémie Renier’s buttoned-up, business-oriented partner Pierre Bergé and Louis Garrel slick and seductive-as-fuck hedonist part-time lover Jacques des Bascher (both providing fine supporting performances), pull him from both sides as Laurent crumbles from within, self-destruction and all. Because it’s a tough life when both Renier and Garrel are fighting for your affection, you understand?
There are touches of Scorcese and Visconti throughout, with Bonello skilfully illustrating the ennui and meaningless decadence of the rich, especially the last hour where the narrative between the reclusive and elderly Laurent (played by Helmut Berger) and his past catwalk success, reflecting how broken the man was and how isolated he became despite his magnificent display of artistic ingenuity. One minute you’re top of the pile, next you’re a has-been. “Am I reduced as a nail varnish in a market?” Laurent inquires. This film hopes he’s more than that.