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Film Reviews Saint Laurent: A biopic ballet of carefully crafted style and imagery

Gaspard Ulliel as Yves Saint Laurent. In the title role, the French model and actor is one of many who could look the part with the right hairstyle, eyeglasses and turtleneck.

Carole Bethuel/Sony Pictures Classics

2 out of 4 stars

Directed by
Bertrand Bonello
Starring
Gaspard Ulliel, Jérémie Renier, Louis Garrel
Classification
14A
Language
English

If Saint Laurent were a typical biopic, the sort that hangs its subjects' memorable pronouncements in air quotes and frames their triumphs with marquee lights, it would require more dot-connecting. But watching Bertrand Bonello's new film is less Saint Laurent than The Saint Laurent Experience: It's the biopic as fever dream.

Like the film's costume designer Anaïs Romand, who borrows vintage Saint Laurent pieces when needed but approximates the rest, Bonello leaves most of the literal, linear connections to the many other films and coffee table books about Saint Laurent. Instead, he offers an elliptical (and a little self-important) narrative ballet of carefully crafted style and imagery: blinkering tubes of coloured fluorescent lights, increasingly skewed chronology, a lens moving in and out of focus, and cheesy multiple split-screens gridded like Saint Laurent's Mondrian dresses.

Bonello skips the boy-genius bits to get right to the middle-aged erratic drug-addict genius period of 1967 to 1976, arguably the height of Saint Laurent's talent and influence – and partying. The hedonism will be familiar to anyone who has read Alicia Drake's decadent history of the era, The Beautiful Fall.

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But it ain't Laurent without Yves, as the T-shirt goes, and in the title role French model and actor Gaspard Ulliel (Hannibal Rising) is one of many who could look the part with the right hairstyle, eyeglasses and turtleneck. Given that Bonello doesn't bother much with the finer points – both in terms of of biography and character development – Ulliel offers not mimicry mimetism but a take that feels true, since it's almost more important that when the designer is cross-eyed and stupefied on a bender, he chooses to slump on a black semi-circular sofa that dominates the room and echoes the slithering snake hallucination of an earlier and precious pill-induced scene.

Unlike the sometimes prissy tragic figure that has been canonized, Bonello allows Saint Laurent be a snooty aesthete with careening appetites and poor judgment – always indulged, and in a full-fledged childlike rebellion to his business partner, keeper and some-time lover Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Rénier). He cruises strangers at night. He goes full frontal. This was Paris in the 1970s, after all – the debauched scene of Le Palace and later, the legendary subterranean bathhouse-turned-club Les Bains. All the heady excess offers a contrast to the orderly art collection and the clinical precision of the traditional haute couture atelier glimpsed in the opening scenes – a minutiae of measurements, muslins and basting stitches performed by workers in lab coats.

The mirrored prism ceiling of Chez Régine, Saint Laurent's regular nightclub hangout, is just one of the movie's many mirror cues. And narcissism means that when he spots platinum blond tomboy Betty Catroux (the superb Aymeline Valade) across the dance floor, Bonello flickers the camera and has the designer see himself dressed in her leather perfecto jacket and pants. Catroux is one of several dissolute Saint Laurent playmates, an accessory like ill-fated Talitha Getty or his stylist Loulou de la Falaise (Léa Seydoux, whose every scene is heralded by the rustling of her jewellery).

Many such longueurs are unnecessarily repeated, and one inserts the darkly magnetic Jacques de Bascher, Karl Lagerfeld's dandy courtesan boyfriend who became Saint Laurent's lover and companion in debauchery – their eyes lock and the camera follows the progress of a waiter holding a champagne tray aloft through the pulsing bodies on the dance floor, and back again. (We got it the first time). "You're really a spoiled child," de Bascher says with a mixture of awe, envy and approval. (Some of the dialogue is an unwitting reminder of the recent rival biopic, Yves Saint Laurent, which was authorized and endorsed by the real-life Bergé, still the keeper of the late designer's legacy; his usual co-starring role in Saint Laurent's life and work is largely sidelined here.)

The film is far from definitive, but there are curious choices of precise detail to suggest this is by design. At the very least, Bonello has created something that all the other contributions to the Saint Laurent mythology lack: an impressionistic, sensory orgy of the atmosphere.

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