Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 26, 2014 10:34 am 
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Bonello's freer, sexier, more original angle on the couturier genius' life

Bonello's sumptuous previous film House of Tolerence/L'Apollonide, souvenirs de la maison close (2011) promised lush decadence for his dip into biopic. And decadence is what Saint Laurent has lots more of than Jalil Lespert's authorized but limp Yves Saint Laurent -- plus an amazing cast. Free, hallucinatory, and original it is, but you can't say this film escapes from the limits of biopics -- it jumps forward to old age and death and looks at a soft lock of baby hair -- but the choice of only one key (and druggy) period from 1967-76 for the main action helps make for a dreamy and successively dreamier interlude. Whether or not Gaspard Ulliel looks more like the designer than Pierre Niney is debatable, but he's sexier, a more attention-grabbing actor; and getting Louis Garrel to play YSL's lover Jacques de Bascher was a coup, as was having Jérémie Renier selflessly play Pierre Bergé, the business partner/lover, another one, and having Léa Seydoux as Loulou de la Falaise, yet another. The legendary beauty Dominique Sanda plays the couturier's mother. The interesting actors just keep on coming, like champagne at a posh party. One mustn't forget to mention the casting of the striking blonde Aymeline Valade as YSL model Betty Catroux.

Bonello soaked himself in information about the designer, and then improvised freely. Thus we get some wonderful sequences devised just to get across a point, or liven up the data. Thus, knowing YSL had a series of French bulldogs all called Moujik, he created a scene where Moujik gobbles down spilled pills from the piles of them the designer was always taking, and dramatically died: hence the need to find lookalike Moujiks II, III, and IV. In another iconic scene, YSL discovers Betty Catroux in a disco, letting down her long blond hair and flailing about, and then begs and begs her to leave Chanel and come to him. (In the next scene she has.) And there's a marvelous sequence with former real life Louis Garrel girlfriend Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as a wealthy client Yves has dressed in a suit. She's uncomfortable, but in a few minutes just by adding and moving around a necklace and letting down her hair he remakes her, and teaches her to enjoy her new image.

Bonello is quietly shrewd and decisive, and using Helmut Berger for the older YSL, with the aging actor's own associations with drugs and decadence and with Visconti, was a cool and effective way of avoiding the artificiality of heavy "aging" makeup on a lead actor that stars the makeup man instead of the star. Making a virtue of necessity, since he was not authorized to use the museum-piece YSL dresses Lespert was given access to by Bergé, he set up a period-style dressmaking workshop and made new creations that are fresher and livelier than the perfect artifacts in the other film. This particularly comes out after a long fugue of drugs and depression from which Yves emerges with a flood of multicolored drawings, and the result is a salon of turbaned exotic models in a show that is prismatically displayed on screen in a set of rectangles mimicking Mondrian, and effect that's more original than Lespert's display of the YSL Mondrian-inspired dress show.

Though there is nothing exactly overtly sexual, there is a semi-erect frontal nude of Ulliel, and various scenes of homoeroticism involving mainly YSL, Jacques de Basher, and miscellaneous rough trade in the bushes. This too, the "official" YSL film could not have. The sometimes sad and disturbing Saint Laurent has many felicities, and its free-form second half and lack of rigid biopic formalities makes the reels drift by smoothly, though its two-and-a-half-hour run-time could have used some cutting. A musician himself, Bonello did the music for this film, and its use of soul, Beethoven, and Callas is unusually rich and intense, another bold stroke. Quality of personnel is further indicated by the co-screenwriter being Thomas Bidegain of Audiard's A Prophet and Rust and Bone.


Saint Laurent, 146 mins., debuted at Cannes in May. Screened for this review as part of the 52nd New York Film Festival Main Slate. It opened in France 24 Sept., receiving fine reviews (AlloCiné press rating 4.0 vs. Yves Saint Laurent's of 3.0). Bonello's film was purchased by Sony Pictures Classics before its Cannes debut, and has been selected as the French entry in the Oscars Best Foreign competition. But it seems unlikely to fare well with the Academy: judging by Metacritic, neither this (51%) nor Lespert's film (51%) register on the radar for a majority of Anglo critics, and they missed the dramatic difference that French reviews note.

Watch Cannes Q&A for this film. Or with English voiceover translation.

Now showing at 16 UGC cinemas in Paris (1 Nov. 2014)

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