Three Films about Yves Saint Laurent
L’Amor Fou (2010). Directed by Pierre Thoretton.
Featuring: Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Bergé, Betty Catroux, Loulou de la Falaise. 98 minutes.
Yves Saint Laurent (2014). Directed by Jalil Lespert.
Starring: Pierre Niney, Charlotte le Bon, Guillaume Gallienne. 106 minutes.
Saint Laurent (2014; North American release: 2015). Directed by Bertrand Bonello.
Starring: Gaspard Ulliel, Louis Garrel, Jérémie Renier, Léa Seydoux. 150 minutes.
“The most beautiful makeup of a woman is passion,” he once said. “But, cosmetics are easier to buy.”
This well-known bon mot from one of the biggest names in French couture, Yves Saint Laurent, perfectly summarizes his attitude towards his work, commodifying the desire to be loved and thought beautiful, but also recognizing that even the most self-assured personality feels more prepared to face the world with accessories.
Born Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent in Oran, Algeria in 1936, he rose from the ranks of Dior’s fashion house in the fifties before simplifying his last name and striking out on his own. By the time of his passing in 2008, the letters YSL stood for elegant, but never simple, couture – clothing that made you feel brand new while also seeming ageless. (For perfect proof, Youtube some of his collections from the nineties, an era whose fashion is generally best forgotten, and see how good his work still looks.)
He ran his design house for more than forty years before retiring in 2002 and, following his death from brain cancer, left behind an eternal design legacy as well as, it turns out, a very impressive art collection, which included multiple works by Gris, Degas, Vuillard, Gaugin, Duchamp, Klee, Matisse and Picasso. For Saint Laurent, high fashion and pristine design were not just matters of aesthetic pleasure or the benefits of a plentiful salary, but a way of life. His clothes, he said, needed to be comfortable in order to give women the confidence he felt made them so beautiful. “When people are more comfortable in their clothes, they are happier,” he said. His great achievement was making this happen without sacrificing the mandate that they also be sharply stylish.
In the last couple of years, Yves Saint Laurent’s legacy has resulted in attention from the European film industry, with a documentary and two feature films coming out relatively close to each other. Pierre Thoretton’s L’Amour Fou was released in 2010 before Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent, starring Pierre Niney. Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent starring French superstar hunk Gaspard Ulliel went into production at the same time. Lespert’s film was released in theatres in the spring of 2014, at the same time that Bonello’s premiered at Cannes to mixed reviews, resulting in the latter film not finding theatrical release in North America until the spring of 2015.
While it might seem that viewing all the films would mean watching the same story three times, the experiences are quite different: “If you take a bottle and ask three people to paint it,” said Bonello at Cannes in 2014, “they will paint it in three different ways.” The documentary is about a lifestyle, the Jalil film a straight biography, and the Bonello about inspiration and creativity. In all cases, it is remarkable how little the Saint Laurent’s fashion output informs the plotting. Saint Laurent is a character so fascinating in his own right that his oeuvre doesn’t seem more than incidental (which, in all three cases, is incorrect).
“He was a man who understood his time, but was not fond of his time,” we are told in Thoretton’s documentary L’Amour Fou, released very soon after its subject’s death. It begins with footage of Saint Laurent’s announced retirement after forty-four years of terrific work, then cuts to his funeral. What you thought would be a biography of his life and career is actually an exploration of love in the world of fashion, the narrative switching to the emptying out and auctioning of his vast collection of treasures stored in his various homes around the world. Of course, we also get glimpses into the glamorous life he led: photos with Mick Jagger, David Bowie, a few clips of his decades-long muse Catherine Deneuve. We see the early footage of press conferences when he was still at Dior, which are dramatized accurately in Lespert’s film.
L’Amour Fou is narrated by Pierre Bergé, who tells us a lot about Saint Laurent but even more about himself and his importance to the Saint Laurent legacy. They met at a fancy dinner, fell in love, and when the chips were down for our hero, Bergé stepped in and made his fashion house happen. We are told that Saint Laurent was fired from Dior for not agreeing with right-wing Marcel Boussac’s feelings on the Algerian War. In Lespert’s film, any political reason is ignored, and Boussac takes advantage of Saint Laurent’s manic depressive episode and fires him for being absent.
There are wonderful interviews with the women of Saint Laurent’s life, representing opposite sides of his self-destructive survivor personality: Betty Catroux brought out his dark side (“We were born feeling depressed.” ) and they shared some bad habits. Loulou de la Falaise appealed to his brighter nature. Both these women are represented in the fictional films that follow but it is interesting that their influence is not felt beyond their aesthetic appeal. Catroux is especially endearing when she points out that her husband and Bergé helped the both of them out of their downward spirals: “It all ended well… thank God, and thanks to them.”
L’Amour Fou’s montages, endless footage of works of art in their homes, emphasize the love between Saint Laurent and Bergé by celebrating the places that they inhabited together, away from the cutting and designing that made the designer famous, and the tragedy of their now being dismantled. Is it their love disappearing, or is Pierre unable to face these little worlds without him? He remembers their trips to Morocco “not with nostalgia because I’m not nostalgic, but with a lot of joy.” The film touches on things that it rushes through a bit too quickly: Bergé’s friendship with Mitterand, his work for AIDS charities, the Minister of Culture’s announcement about fashion as an important art. There are the lovely details that are either deleted or not emphasized in the fictional films, such as the fact that Saint Laurent loved Proust and often traveled under the name of Swann. These glimpses into his imagination are rare here and even more so in the fictional films to follow: the man who said that “Fame is the mourning of happiness,” another perfect summation of his personality, would definitely have had a mind worth exploring. Instead, we conclude again with the auction, and it is interesting how much of this movie is concerned with possessions instead of fashion.
The first of the two narrative feature films, Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent starring Pierre Niney in the lead role, is a retread of L’Amour Fou that puts aside the art collecting and focuses on the biographical details that were at the fringes of Thoretton’s film. The more mainstream of the two dramatic features, released by the Weinstein Company and made up of relatively unknown new faces in French cinema, it is told from Bergé’s point of view again (played here by Guillaume Gallienne), likely because this was the project authorized by Saint Laurent himself. It also focuses more on the early years as a way of recreating the delight of Coco Before Chanel, but finds less to mine than Anne Fontaine’s film did. We learn more about Saint Laurent’s initial employment at Dior, being fired while being hospitalized for rest, plus details of his family’s living in Algeria during the War for Independence, and the entire clan’s ambivalence as citizens and colonialists in their native country.
The other well known details are here: post-Dior, getting funded by an American billionaire and the help of his model friend Victoire Doutreleau (whose husband was the man behind Paris Match) all contributing to his initial success as a couturier in his own right. Lespert never strays from the timeline, and we receive information without much speculation. We meet Saint Laurent’s family not because they add drama or move the plot forward, but because they provide detailed information – the information being that the filmmakers have done their research. Gaining confidence as a public figure, beginning his art collection, looking for sex in the seedy parts of the city, discovering Mondrian, meeting Betty Catroux, “Le Smoking”, drug addiction, getting Warhol-ed, meeting Jacques de Bascher: these are all perfunctorily checked off the list in a linear manner that is not very inspiring (and the unnecessary narration does not help).
While Bonello’s film can be criticized for its overly long and dull sequences of miserable loneliness, Lespert’s is surprising for being lifeless in the scenes that shouldn’t be: the first fashion show (displaying a world before fashion shows became circuses) and the closing one (roughly the same one that ends Bonello’s film) are given no rhythm or pulse. Robert Altman’s Pret-A-Porter might have a silly and weak plot, but it’s a rippingly good how-to guide about filming the exciting nature of these events. When we get to the concluding collection in Lespert’s film, it does not feel like that much of a reward as it does in Bonello’s.
There are some terrific elements in Lespert’s film, however. Charlotte le Bon is perfection as Doutreleau, the only woman in all three films who really reads as a vibrant feminine counterpart to Saint Laurent’s slinky appeal. Most important, Lespert’s film captures the tension between Saint Laurent and Bergé that is missing in the other two, focusing on the cost to Bergé’s own well-being that came from supporting the genius of the man he loved, while at the same time holding on to him by not being overly possessive of him, physically. Bergé obviously dies a little bit inside every time Saint Laurent has sex with strangers, but internalizes his anger and it comes out in alternate ways. In the documentary, we learn that he actually left Saint Laurent several times, but always came back. Yves is as much a victim as he is a tyrant, we see him crumble under public scrutiny, but fearlessly lose his temper at his employees. The more plastic presentation here is of Bergé himself, likely because he is still alive: his fierce protection of his business and life partner is without a doubt motivated by love, but is he not also protecting his financial investment in the company they started together? The documentary would have benefited from closer examination of the friction between these two desires.
Bonello’s project, not forbidden by Pierre Bergé but publicly denounced by him as officially unauthorized, is the less conventional of the two. Co-producer Olivier Père described it quite aptly as going “from documentary to an opera”. For the filmmakers, the result of being disapproved of by the people involved was the freedom to ignore conventional biography; the downside is that the film is freely expressive to the point that it is often obscure and disconnected.
The film features bigger stars, with Gaspard Ulliel as Saint Laurent, Jérémie Renier as Bergé and Louis Garrel as Jacques de Bascher, plus a few moments with the great Lea Seydoux as Loulou de la Falaise. There’s no need to compare which portrayal of the designer is better as they both do a stand-up job in admittedly different roles; Saint Laurent always had a face somewhere between handsome and goofy, and while Ulliel veers more to the handsome side and Niney to the goofy, they both sound like him and do as much credit to the material as they can.
Bonello announced at the 2014 Cannes press conference that he had not seen Lespert’s version and had little worries of the competition. He wasn’t concerned with chronology as he had heard the rival project was, instead focusing on the area between misery and inspiration because dealing with an entire life would be impractical (which Lespert’s film proves). “We decided to make it about what it cost him,” said Bonello, “and not, as is tradition, where it came from.” This is both admirable and frustrating, since the non-expert on Saint Laurent will be lost at sea.
Saint Laurent’s famous quotes on how fashion should make women confident instead of vulnerable – not something the advertising in that industry, by and large, seems to encourage – but is dramatized beautifully in a terrific sequence in which Valeria Bruni Tedeschi goes from unsure to top-of-the-world in a fitting session with the great maestro. Scenes of Saint Laurent’s process make up much of the earlier parts of the film and give it a wonderful energy before it becomes about destructive sex and miserable loneliness. Ulliel’s bewitching performance is strong, but the style is the substance here and the film keeps us on the outside. Saint Laurent went by instinct in many circumstances and didn’t question or examine what inspired him. This is fascinating, but makes for long and heavy viewing as the film progresses. The film is gorgeously shot and, in its own way interesting, but fails to stick because there’s no indication of a source of either inspiration or crippling, hollow self-esteem, nor is there much reaction from the protagonist to his experiences. You can argue that this is true to the life of the man himself, who began working young and probably gave little time to self-reflection, but he also was not shallow and his work was more than just aesthetically pleasing.
What is more impressive, however, is that Saint Laurent’s more taxing experiences – the depression, the self-destructive sexual relationships – are felt here. They are only referenced in Lespert’s film, which tastefully cuts away from sex, drugs and anything else graphic and, by doing so, casts judgement on his bad choices instead of giving him the opportunity to go astray and be redeemed. In Lespert’s film, he doesn’t get to enjoy the wantonness before coming back from damnation.
The worst part of Bonello’s film, and the scenes I would happily see cut, are those featuring a tired-looking Helmut Berger as the aged Saint Laurent. Berger looks far more corroded than Saint Laurent did at that age; Berger’s fame as a key glamorous figure of the era covered by the film makes him perfect for the project, but there’s little else of value in his appearing here. The scenes accomplish very little either dramatically or emotionally.
Bonello’s ending is glorious though, a celebration of the 1976 “Russian Ballet” show, for which Saint Laurent was highly productive and inspired. Model after model parades out onto the runway, an impressive recreation of the event considering that the filmmakers had no access to Saint Laurent’s work and had to recreate all the fashions you see in the film (involving some rented pieces but mostly fabrics purchased from Italian and French designers). At two and a half hours, the film is much too long and, like the other two, will likely not extend Saint Laurent’s appeal beyond those already in his thrall, but this exciting sequence is a fitting reward for everything we have both suffered (like Berger and all those scenes of unhappiness) and guiltily enjoyed (including some wonderfully ripe sexuality, including a doggedly fun full frontal scene by Ulliel).
It’s unlikely that audiences will come to a unanimous decision about which of these films is the best but, for my money, Bonello’s is the most eccentric and memorable, certainly the most cinematic, and the one that leaves the deepest emotional impression even if it does not always capture the imagination. Saint Laurent, who loved being pitied and worshiped at the same time, would probably have liked Bonello’s film. The fact that its is so inspired and so banal at the same time seems a fitting tribute for a man who outfitted women in beautiful gowns, but wished he had invented the simplicity of jeans.
Bil Antoniou is a playwright and film critic whose reviews can be found at myoldaddiction.com. He is co-host of the podcast BGM: Bad Gay Movies/Bitchy Gay Men, which is available on iTunes. He is currently working on his fourth play.