Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Jun 01, 2011 2:06 pm 
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Memento mori: the dispersal of a great collection, the record of a long creative and personal partnership

A blurb describes L'Amour Fou as "A documentary on the relationship between fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent and his lover, Pierre Bergé," but it is rather a film about Yves St. Laurent's career and his life narrated by Pierre Bergé and ending with the sale of their collections by Bergé shortly after the designer's death in 2008 at the age of seventy-one. Along the way there is a sense of the tormented and passionate love of the two men, not to mention the essential role of Bergé in the business, but perhaps for Bergé both the sale and his participation in this film represent more than anything a ritual of unburdening. This isn't like Matt Tyrnauer's 2008 film, Valentino: The Last Emperor, which to a considerable extent is a mostly happy and even humorous celebration of the love of the Italian designer and his love and work partner Giancarlo Giammetti. Giammetti and Valentino are both alive and we often see them together in the present squabbling and collaborating. The phrase L'Amour Fou ("mad love") refers not to romance but the obsession for collecting fine objects. The film is a memorial for a life that was as mournful as it was brilliant.

L'Amour Fou is totally dominated by the great figure of the designer, who ruled the world of fashion for the second half of the 20th century. St. Laurent was brought into the house of Dior at eighteen and took it over at Dior's death, when he was only twenty-one. His "beatnik" designs failed after the first season, and he was expelled from Dior while serving a brief, disastrous tour in the army -- but with Bergé established his own couture house immediately. He had entered the world of fashion in the Fifties, and he and Bergé delivered their first ready-to-wear collection in 1962, when he was twenty-six.

All the main ups and downs of YSL's extraordinary career are touched on by this film. It's interesting to see footage of early interviews of this shy man. He seems cute, sweet, elegant, and naive. He was to become lugubrious, drug-ridden, alcoholic, and withdrawn, granting no interviews and entertaining no one. His tall, lean figure was always stylish but he became bloated-looking, though in latter days he finally cleaned up and led a life free of intoxicants.

Since the film is so much about collecting, it is also about houses. The first one was a big apartment on the Rue de Babylone in Paris' elegant seventh arrondissement, which the couple kept throughout their life together and filled with incredible objects, including a Goya and a Brancusi that sold for many millions of euros in the sale -- which, incidentally, was conducted in the Grand Palais, where the vast art fair the FIAC is held every year. The YSL-Bergé auction was bigger news than the FIAC! YSL was born in Algeria and his great hideaway and place to regroup was Marrakech, which was to become the site of some of the grandest and most stylish gay men's resort palaces. The garden, the patios, the delicately-lit salons are shown. The third big location was a neo-Gothic manse in Normandy. In this house, each room was decorated (by Jacques Grange) and named in honor of a character from Proust. YSL's was called "Swann," and Bergé's was called "Charlus."

These spaces and their decor are wonderful, but they are overdecorated and can seem in the photos to be dark and lugubrious -- perfect embodiments of St. Laurent's recurrent gloom. "I was born depressed," he says, on the all-French soundtrack. In time Bergé says YSL was only happy twice a year and very briefly, when his collections were completed. But he was as much a demonic creative force as his early friend and rival, Karl Lagerfeld. (St. Laurent's focus on the constant production of the large twice-yearly collections is more fully chronicled in David Teboul's two interrelated 2002 documentaries that I have reviewed, Yves Saint Laurent: His Life and Times and Yves Saint Laurent: 5 Avenue Marceau 75116 Paris.)

It's not like YSL never had any fun. Partying was his way of banishing depression and he could club with the best of them -- Regine's and Studio 54 were haunts of his in his jet set days. Female clients loved him and his partners in fun and muses were many, including the model Iman, the companions and inspirations Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Catroux (both interviewed for the film); and there was Catherine Deneuve. But when he stayed out partying a day and a night and a day, Bergé moved out, though he moved only down the street. It's fun to see the early films and photos. YSL could be dashing and sexy and he often flashes a wide smile. But then there gradually comes the slow, formal speech, the dim look, the gloom. The designer retired four years before Valentino, in 2002. "We have entered the era of marketing, at the expense of creativity," Bergé told The Associated Press. Alluding to Saint Laurent's status at the top of the fashion world, he added, "It's not very fun to play a tennis match when you are all alone." Valentino gave the same reason for leaving the field: syndicalization, global marketing, an emphasis on the bottom line at the cost of creative artistry.

Both couples, Valentino-Giammetti and YSL-Bergé, have in common a focus on accumulated wealth used to live lives of conspicuous excess, but the YSL-Bergé one is grander and more elegant and the creative genius behind it is the greater one. As I said of Teboul's films, "It's sad to see the contrast between the cute, witty young YSL and the old, addiction-ravaged chain smoker at the end, but the words are as carefully chosen at both ends, and the terrifying intensity of focus, the passion for creation, never falters." This was one of the great ones, and another film is not unwelcome, though apart the formal voices of YSL and Bergé defining themselves and their achievements and some rare early footage of the couturier, the addition is more, this time, a sad footnote about wealth and objects of beauty and how they all vanish in the end. The French gay couple had fifty years together and their joint achievement was extraordinary. But like any other widower, Pierre Bergé is alone now, and has gotten rid of the accumulation of two lifetimes. Yes, it brought in over $480 million, but Bergé is just as sad and alone as anyone else whose mate is gone. Like Giammetti, Bergé was the practical, "normal" anchor of the relationship, and now the creative madman is gone, and he must soldier on.

L'Amour Fou is an IFC Films release in the US and was screened at IFC Center in New York.

L'Amour Fou, 98 mins., had its first theatrical release in Belgium September 2010, (Paris 22 Sept. Allocine press rating 3.4). It was shown at the San Francisco International Film Festival May 3, 2011, US theatrical release May 13, 2011.

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