Bright Lights Film Journal

Love Stories: Pierre et Gilles (1997)

The love in this film about the two lost boys of Eurotrash art is mostly self-love.

The art of Pierre and Gilles, affectionately known as P&G, has always been a little suspect, like the work of another modern master of the overwrought, Jeff Koons. Critics haven’t always been kind to the fortysomething French duo, dismissing them early on as kitsch. P&G’s association with the curdled world of haute couture — creating covers for fashion rags like Marie Claire and invitations to shows by Thierry Mugler — hasn’t boosted their standing as court jesters to everything slick, superficial, and ultimately empty in modern culture.

Of course, critics can never deter camp followers, and the latter have found much to celebrate in this art, which is in a sense a vastly overblown version of the drag queen’s ritual of applying makeup. P&G’s stylistic strategy is simple: they collaborate on setting up a bizarre tableau often involving a naked or half-naked male (occasionally female) model, truckloads of feathers, flowers, glitter, and sometimes stage blood, and then photograph the model trapped in this suffocatingly beautiful mise-en-scene. Pierre takes the picture and blows it up, and then Gilles sets to work altering it, radically overlaying a saturated Technicolor palette on the image, transposing a street hustler into St. Anthony, or Madonna into a perhaps appropriate Medusa. Their style most resembles the gaudy paintings of saints common in Mexican folk art, or those blazing, festooned images of Hindu gods available as posters in your local Indian grocery.

Mike Aho followed P&G around for a year or so to make his hour-long documentary Pierre et Gilles: Love Stories (1998), a ragged but enjoyable exercise in fan worship. He makes no attempt to contextualize them, but this is probably inevitable given the lives of his subject. Indeed we know little more about the duo by film’s end than we did at the start. What we do see is that the boys are inveterate scenesters, surrounded by a virtual army of queens, fag-hags, hustlers, art-hags, and admirers; and the party, almost more than the art, is the point. The art memorializes the party, freezing the attendees at their most voluptuous, robust, and sensual. As one of them says, “Nothing touches their actors … they exist in a dream aura.” Another comments on the unvarying sunniness of P&G’s disposition: “They are the only people I know who are always the same” — not unlike the airbrush-smoothed faces of their models, from whom every trace of aging or imperfection or doubt has been removed. P&G energetically disprove the cliché of the angst-ridden artist.

One of their obsessions is stardom — “they love popular stars like Joan Collins,” one queen opines — and one of the most revered is a big fan: Catherine Deneuve, who has posed for them. Deneuve is surprisingly insightful in discussing their work; she sounds almost like an art critic, in spite of her unalloyed praise. Others who extol their work here include Rupert Everett and Nina Hagen — who also modeled for them bound in shiny latex with her trademark mock-shocked look. Hagen is in her usual mode, one minute admiring P&G, the next singing and prattling about outer space.

The almost nauseating narcissism that underlies their scene is evident from one of their models, a sleek, self-absorbed male diva named Enzo who lounges naked on a rug and pontificates on P&G’s ability to “interpret” him. “I’ve done seven images with P&G, and they’ve captured all of me, I’d say.” (Seven was probably six too many.) Enzo was part of the artists’ infamous “Bad Boys” series, which samples the archetypes of homosexual mythology in nude or nearly nude imagery: hustler, leatherman, sailor, etc. In each case, P&G try to find the “saint” in their subject, but the documentary undermines this idea by interviewing the models who posed for these works. Inevitably the creature fixed forever as a gaudy god on the photo-canvas turns out to be little more than a brainless muscle queen who can never put down the mirror.