Bright Lights Film Journal

The Line, The Eye: Yves Saint Laurent on Film

Gaspard Ulliel( as Yves Saint Laurent in Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent. Screenshot

Mesmerizing designs pull our eyes away from the tiresome demands of history, but Bonello doesn’t portray Yves as an escapist. Instead, he suggests that we cannot assume a straightforward relation between politics and art.

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A biography of a great artist needs to take full stock of its subject’s formal contribution to art: what it meant to introduce those lines to the world, and what had to be distorted or pushed out in the process. We have seen this idea worked through in films about painters, sculptors, and writers – but not in a biography of a fashion designer.

Perhaps correctly, the producers of fashion films sense that going through the moves is enough to attract an audience: show us the dresses, touch on the canonical periods, and shoot a couple of “fabulous” frames for posterity. Coco Avant Chanel (2009) and Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent (2014) were biopics in this tradition: content to get the frocks out of the archives and hit the dramatic beats of a life story.

I’ve yet to see a fashion biopic executed with passion – until now. In a way it’s lucky that Lespert’s version of YSL arrived four months earlier, clearing out some of the exposition and housekeeping, and paving the way for a genuinely new work: Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent (2014). Bonello’s film is not only a breakthrough for fashion but a great achievement for biography, showing us the elusive, often undetectable relationship between works of art and the visible period they inhabit.

In a key split-screen sequence, Bonello shows us several seasons of YSL designs being coolly walked past images of history: the Vietnam War, Black Panthers, the Paris riots of ’68. Far more space is given to the political footage, since the runway only takes up a sliver of the frame, but our eyes can’t help gravitating toward the linear and elegant, pushing aside mere “events” to focus on slight variations in form. One could presumably find some parallel between YSL’s dresses and the politics of each year – the way that forecasters equate falling hemlines with stock plunges – but let’s face it: it would be a stretch.

Ulliel as Saint Laurent sketching. Screenshot

The relationship between clothing and the zeitgeist, so often taken for granted, is hard to account for here; fashion can be most revealing in its “ahistorical” moments. When Yves (Gaspard Ulliel) sketches at his studio, he listens to an anti-beauty feminist spiel on the radio. Casually and without resentment, he continues drawing; absorbed in each stroke of the pen, his awareness of the voice-over falls away. Once again, mesmerizing designs pull our eyes away from the tiresome demands of history, but Bonello doesn’t portray Yves as an escapist. Instead, he suggests that we cannot assume a straightforward relation between politics and art. Sometimes there is a clear link between the designer and his period – for instance, his unprecedented and glorious use of black models – but more often, the association is coincidental, even nonexistent. As Bonello demonstrates in his split-screens, historical images can walk side by side with only glancing reference to each other.

In this film, the connection between art and the environmental conditions of its production is far from obvious. This is especially apt for YSL, who tended to latch onto a glimpse, a tiny perfected fragment, more than any obvious cultural trend. Bonello shows us the futility of a literal, chronological approach to artist biography; the camera must dart between years and cities in order to express the intense shaping power of Saint Laurent’s imagination.

In order to represent history in terms of how it looks, Bonello chooses his actors for their mythic power as much as their skills. Helmut Berger, the male idée fixe of the ’70s, plays the older Yves looking dejectedly at his own reflection. The role of Yves’s mother is taken by Dominique Sanda: a formidable, wolf-eyed vision guaranteed to dominate a man’s life, the way Sanda has in so many other films. Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, anxious and disheveled as ever, appears briefly as a couture client, taught by YSL to redefine her lines. As for Gaspard Ulliel, Bonello focuses on his signature scar – the actor’s unique attributes – as much as his imitation of Yves’ mannerisms.

There is also the subtext of casting three of France’s hottest actors of the moment – Ulliel, Jérémie Renier, and Louis Garrel – as passionate, seductive gay men. French cinema has always had an inexhaustible appetite for starlets, while dismissing its male sex symbols as jeunes premiers, callow youths; even Louis Jourdan had to go to Hollywood to exercise his charms. Devastating looks in a man have only been acceptable when he is playing a sexual manipulator rather than a romantic lead – Alain Delon in Plein Soleil (1960), Gérard Philipe in Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1959). Things have only gotten worse in the last twenty years, with film after film pairing heavyset older men with divine waifs.

Louis Garrel as Jacques de Bauscher

The casting of Louis Garrel as Jacques de Bascher, the great passion of Yves’ life, represents a twist. In real life, Bascher managed to be the love object of two titans, YSL and Karl Lagerfeld, and Garrel is an homme fatale to the hilt. In the “look of love” scene where Yves meets Jacques, Garrel is self-effacing yet smoldering: a figure of youth, vigor, and carnality. It’s been a long time since we encountered such absolute magnetism in a French leading man, although it remains to be seen whether this is feasible in a heterosexual context. Not all French actors need to be sexy, but it’s nice to feel that it’s at least possible.

Bonello gives full erotic heat to the film’s pickup scenes, letting us feel the excitement and danger of Yves and Jacques’ sex with strangers. There are some of the best nightclub sequences ever, the roaming camera and soundtrack creating a hallucinatory elevation and sense-quickening. Contrast this with Lespert’s film, which can’t even pull off a desirable party scene. There may be a hollowness at the heart of high glamor, but audiences shouldn’t be yawning at a soirée featuring the likes of Betty Catroux and Talitha Getty.

A 1988 ad featuring Naomi Campbell

YSL’s defining look was built on line, length, and clarity, as well as his lifelong regard for black models. Unlike the famously contrarian Lagerfeld, he stayed true to a set of aesthetic principles, and for him, using women of color was no passing trend. Saint Laurent can be seen as a civil rights pioneer alongside Ebony magazine’s legendary Eunice Johnson, who purchased Paris couture for years so that images of black glamor could circulate in the US. The effect was monumental: these two created the ideal of the sophisticated black muse, which reigned for two decades. For those of us raised on catwalk footage of the ’80s and early ’90s, the archetypal figure of fashion is African-American; years of pale clones and Prada ads can’t erase that supreme standard of elegance.

We don’t get to register the force of Yves’ contribution until the very end. During the final section, we see the designer’s death and then move back in time to one of his signature shows. Busy, percolating sounds can be heard, as if a series of forms is reassembling itself, in readiness for the last act. The wings of the dove are descending: the blurring of senses and time periods suggests that closure is imminent. After a flash of Yves’ face, there are the end credits.

It’s in these last frames that Bonello reveals what he has learned about YSL: the closing credits have an Yves-like clarity and beauty, immaculately divided into son, image, and musique. Like the parade of outfits on the runway, words travel past us, marked by a style that balances minimalism and fullness, harmony and surprise. The credits show more of YSL’s aesthetic principles than any single scene: his clean delineation of space, a simplicity without severity. During the film, Bonello has never labeled certain shots or designs as “iconic”; instead, Yves’ creativity comes as an afterthought, out of a mood of languor or stress, sometimes forgetfulness. The artist’s legacy can only be seen in retrospect, in the procession of words that pass him by.

Note: Unless indicated as screenshots (taken from the trailer), photos are courtesy of the film’s distributor.