Unfashionably Long: A Review of Bertrand Bonello’s ‘Saint Laurent’

Saint Laurent

I know. How frustrating is it that biopics tend to be as dull and repetitive as they are? I don’t understand quite how that happens, considering you usually have to be a remarkably interesting person to guarantee someone would make a movie about you. Entertaining gossipy stories about the lives of famous people tend to be fascinating when told in other formats (don’t take my word for it, listen to Karina Longworth’s podcast, You Must Remember This and be the judge yourself), so why are we incapable of making good movies about them?

Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent seems to be asking itself that very same question. One of the last scenes in the movie features a group of journalists trying to write an obituary for fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. “How can you possibly sum up the life of this amazing person in just a couple paragraphs?” is the question they might as well be asking themselves. The scene comes out with a triumphantly tongue-in-cheek vibe, content to reflect on its very existence after spending two and a half hours exploring the life of its subject. This scene is design to be the cherry on top of a fashionable sundae, and it would be, if Saint Laurent had told us anything substantial about the designer’s life.

The movie jumps around in time, but mostly focuses on the ten-year period between 1967 and 1977, which by most any metrics was the height of the designer’s career. I didn’t know much about his life gong in, but from what I understand, Saint Laurent has been a pretty obscure figure. Actor Gaspard Ulliel plays him as such. He is an impeccable man; whether he is dressing in exquisite tuxedos or lying naked on the floor, you only need a couple seconds to recognize that he is a rockstar.

Even more seductive than Saint Laurent, however, are the characters he finds alluring. We meet the designer’s friend and collaborator Betty Catroux (Aymeline Valade) wearing black leather and in the middle of an entrancing dance. An even more dramatic entrance happens in one of the movie’s best scenes: set in a Parisian nightclub and scored to Patti Austin’s cover of “Didn’t Say a Word”, Saint Laurent sits in a corner while a white-tuxedoed man named Jacques (Louis Garrell) makes his flirty way across the dance-floor. It’s an upbeat song, but the way Bonello uses color and framing, letting us discover brief glimpses of the men’s connection while everyone else dances around them, is one of the most luscious moments in a very stylish movie.

Saint Laurent, of course, can’t resist, and to the dismay of his partner in life and business Pierre Bergé (Jeremie Renier), begins a decadent love relationship with Jacques. Bergé, along with Saint Laurent’s friend Loulou de la Falaise (Lea Seydoux) for that matter, are the stabilizing forces in the man’s life. The designer is not seduced by them, his love for them isn’t carnal, it’s emotional. When we first meet Loulou, she is lying on a bed laughing while Saint Laurent interrogates her about the origins of her outfit. “It’s a mess, but I love it” he says. (Much) Later in the movie, we learn that the House of Saint Laurent was born out of a fantasy by Yves and Bergé to have their own company.

Judging by the characterization of the supporting characters, we can infer Saint Laurent‘s main interest to be in the conflict between creation (Loulou, Pierre) and his self-destructive impulses (Jacques). Not a wholly original idea you might say, and you’d be right. Bonello tries to incorporate as many stylish choices as possible -Slow-motion sequences, carefully staged tableaus, split-screens, and expressionistic colors are all used- but he can’t quite elevate what is a recognizably tired screenplay. Saint Laurent takes time to make painfully sure that we know the lines of dialogue and symbolic elements we should pay attention to, but it sadly doesn’t provide many answers as to what those symbols are supposed to mean. If there is a deeper meaning to the movie, it sadly escaped me.

I appreciate the director’s desire to kick-start the familiar structure of the screenplay with colorful sequences -some of them are truly memorable- but Saint Laurent‘s size and nature make it an ultimately tedious experience that over-stays its welcome far longer than is forgivable. If your movie is going to be more than two hours long, you better have more than 30 seconds of Lea Seydoux playing with a pack of french bulldogs. Now, that’s what I call cinema.

Grade: 5 out of 10

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3 comments

  1. smilingldsgirl · May 9, 2015

    Interesting and too bad because it sounds like an interesting life they could have had more fun with. I think the hard part of biopics is people who make them really love the people so they are unwilling to take them on paths that they might take fiction. There is too much reverence that it ends up feeling bland. Or if they have a dark side it is a predictable ‘not that bad’ darkness like drugs in a rock star biopic.

    When it does work for me it follows a predictable formula but the performances are so strong and life interesting enough that I’m willing to forgive the obviousness. Like I love Walk the Line. The writing is good enough, the chemistry is good enough, the music is great and I love June and Johnny so it combines to be very satisfying movie I rewatch frequently. But it is the exception rather than the rule.

    • Conrado Falco · May 10, 2015

      I agree ‘Walk the Line’ is among the better biopics, but my favorites are the ones that don’t necessarily look at the whole life of a person, but either at one key event in their lives (like Selma) or use their lives as a template to explore other themes (like Amadeus).

      • smilingldsgirl · May 10, 2015

        I agree. Those are good examples. I really loved Saving Mr Banks which is kind of that same idea. Instead of a bio of Disney it’s just this one period. I know its a lot of fiction mixed in but for some reason that didnt bother me. I love the scene in London when Walt is talking about his Dad and says “I’m tired of remembering it that way”. It really hit me. Thats when a biopic works when we lowly nonfamouse people can still relate. Even in Amadeus I related to the themes of envy and jealousy and how we can allow someone to control our lives and they are completely oblivious

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