“Even in a contemporary film culture where no idea seems too thin to try twice, the arrival of two Yves Saint Laurent biopics in the space of five months counts as a distinct curiosity,” begins Guy Lodge in Variety. “The enduring influence of the French fashion god, who died in 2008, is beyond question, but his life doesn’t seem an obvious source of fascination to the filmgoing public. Yet if Jalil Lespert’s bland, authorized Yves Saint Laurent, which bowed domestically in January, represents the prêt-à-porter version of its subject, Bertrand Bonello’s glossily intuitive vision is pure haute couture—considerably more spectacular, but also less practical, with its baroque ornamentation and slip-sliding chronology.”
“Gaspard Ulliel plays the young version of Yves as an otherworldly genius whose early success leads to a life of ennui, depression and substance abuse,” writes John Bleasdale at CineVue. “Along the way, Saint Laurent is aided by the seamstresses of his atelier, his devoted partner and sometime-love Pierre (played by Jérémie Renier), the models who would become his muses and gatekeepers Loulou (played by the recently ubiquitous Lea Séydoux) and Betty (Aymeline Valade)…. The trajectory of success and excess followed by last act redemption is familiar to the point of parody, and the ploys with time come over as gimmicky attempt to inject an element of surprise into the otherwise predictable narrative. Bonello’s Saint Laurent remains a stylish portrait of a man struggling with a lack of struggle; it’s gorgeous to look at, whilst at the same time conceding its own vacuous heart.”
In the Hollywood Reporter, Boyd van Hoeij notes that “a quick split-screen montage piece combines the 1968 student protests and violent happenings around the world with the designer’s 1968-71 collections being modeled, though it’s unclear what Bonello is exactly trying to suggest…. Indeed, the screenplay, by the director and France’s star screenwriter, Thomas Bidegain (Rust and Bone, Our Children), seems to generally lack a throughline or focus, coasting from party scenes full of drugs and alcohol to work-related drama but rarely managing to get inside the head of the self-destructive character the designer had become by the 1970s.”
“Bonello doesn’t seem particularly interested in the man himself,” finds Mike D’Angelo, dispatching to the Dissolve, “but neither does he revel in period decadence… as much as one might expect from the man who directed House of Pleasures. Individual sequences are beguiling and amusing… but they don’t add up to a coherent vision, and Saint Laurent’s eventual downslide into drug abuse is extremely Behind the Couture. Only in the home stretch, when Bonello suddenly starts jumping back and forth between the younger Saint Laurent and his elderly counterpart (played by Helmut Berger), does the film finally start to look purposeful. By then, however, more two hours in, it’s too late.”
“Saint Laurent turns out to be the usual decades-spanning profile, a rise and fall story that hits most of the expected graphs of its subject’s Wikipedia page,” writes the AV Club‘s A.A. Dowd. Bonello “manages some striking sequences; for example, he stages Saint Laurent’s first encounter with Jacques De Bascher (Louis Garrel) not with reverse shots, but by panning back and forth across a crowd of dancing bodies. Overall, though, this is biopic business as usual.”
“It is hugely narcissistic, colossally long,” finds the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw, “and for all its apparently feminized sensibility and solemn talk of Saint Laurent’s pioneering sympathy with women, it is as macho and phallus-worshipping as any Schwarzenegger action movie. This butterfly doesn’t get broken on any wheel—it smashes the wheel to pieces.”
“There are, alas, a few on-the-nose references to other artists and celebrities (Saint Laurent was apparently pen pals with Warhol) but what is this movie going to be if not an impressive party?” asks Jordan Hoffman at Film.com. “What may be frustrating to some (but refreshing to others) how the movie never looks you in the eye to say ‘This is what Saint Laurent is trying to accomplish.’ This reserve may lessen the character’s sympathetic impact, but to be so blunt about things really wouldn’t be so stylish, now, would it?”
Time Out‘s Dave Calhoun winds up “wishing for a shorter, more concise account. It doesn’t help that the characterization, even of Saint Laurent himself, is often as thin as the models: the women… get especially short shrift…. And a late, awkward scene set in the office of the newspaper Libération, with Bonello himself playing a journalist wrongly assuming in 1977 that Saint Laurent has died, only feels like an admission that Saint Laurent is running at its subject from all directions but never quite reaching its core.”
“It is a film that hangs well and looks the part but is ultimately less that satisfying,” finds Screen‘s Mark Adams. And from Nikola Grozdanovic at Indiewire: “Perhaps through time this hallucinatory quasi-dream of a biopic will grow in stature, but as first impressions go, the film loves itself so much it renders itself beautiful, but utterly shallow.” And for the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin, “it becomes not just tedious but thunderously vapid.”
Lespert’s film “received full endorsement from Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s long-time partner, including the loan of vintage outfits from the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent’s 6,000-strong collection,” notes Liza Foreman in the Financial Times. But “Bergé apparently threatened to sue over the Bonello film if it showed unauthorized reproductions. ‘I am saying they are not allowed to show copies,’ he was quoted as telling Women’s Wear Daily in January.” Foreman asks Bonello’s costume designer, Anaïs Romand, how she’s managed to meet the challenge.
Meantime, Deadline‘s Nancy Tartaglione reports that Sony Pictures Classics has picked up North American rights.
Updates, 5/18: “Saint Laurent has a much deeper flaw than a shallow characterization,” finds Barbara Scharres at RogerEbert.com, “and it frequently falters in visual interest. Much of it would look better on the small screen. This is a film loaded with talking heads against the blankness of empty walls.”
But for Cineuropa‘s Fabien Lemercier, Bonello “paints a flamboyant picture of a man confronted incessantly by his sinister double and by the monster he has created: a model which he becomes to the point of going too far.” All in all, “the film is a very beautiful example of the way in which a talented director can fashion a film that is potentially for the public at large without abandoning his artistic integrity or diluting his intention.”
Updates, 5/19: Peter Labuza at the Film Stage: “It’s easy to see the surface links between Tolerance and Saint Laurent—the gorgeously designed sets, as well as an emphasis on the body—but these comprise the surfaces of what is otherwise Bonello’s all-too-classically structured biopic trappings.”
“The sad fact is, despite all of his delicious directorial manoeuvres, there’s little Bonello is able to do to convince that YSL was an exceptional being,” adds David Jenkins in Little White Lies. “And more than that, worthy of empathy.”
“Befitting its fashion industry subject, the film is aesthetically rich as it is gloriously superficial, though not always the better for it,” writes Ben Croll at Twitch.
“Despite the film’s historical infrastructure, Bonello still concerns himself primarily with the aural and visual nuances of his medium, and befitting its subject, Saint Laurent is a seductive, often hypnotic article of sensuality for the senses,” writes Jordan Cronk for Sight & Sound. “Bonello has cited the influence of Martin Scorsese’s true-life fictionalisations, particularly Casino (1995), but Saint Laurent lacks the headlong momentum of even of those films’ most sedate moments. Rather, its demeanour and formal qualities are more reminiscent of Luchino Visconti’s late-period chamber pieces.”
“Some of the movie is smart; a lot of it’s a repetitive mess.” Wesley Morris at Grantland: “The movie’s boldest moments have nothing to do with depictions of strung-out sex. They’re the scenes of the House of Saint Laurent hard at work on clothes—seamstresses cutting and ripping and sewing, stressfully, seriously, studiously. At one point a lady (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) comes into the atelier insecure about the suit that’s been made for her. I’m fashionable, she says. Don’t worry, says Saint Laurent, more or less, we don’t do fashion, we do style. He and the fitters add some jewels and muss her up a bit, and with a wag of her unpinned hair, she’s a new, confident woman. It’s the best, sexiest scene in the movie. That’s what you’d like to know from a movie like this, and it’s crucial but largely missing here: How does something like a trouser suit change how a woman sees herself? How do the clothes feel?”
Domenico La Porta talks with Bonello for Cineuropa.
Updates, 5/22: Scott Foundas in the Film Comment roundtable: “I found a lot of affinities between Saint Laurent and Mr. Turner actually, in that I think both are very smart in how they approach the biopic, which is a kind of genre that’s full of booby traps that people fall into all the time. Both of these movies are focused on a very specific time period of their subjects’ lives, they don’t try to tell you their whole story from childhood to death, they’re not full of those phony moments you get in a lot of biographical movies where you see somebody having their flash of inspiration.”
“The central theme,” writes Blake Williams at Ioncinema, “is re-materialization, namely, Saint Laurent’s propensity for reinvigorating the status quo by injecting it with the new. Unfortunately, one of the prime examples in Saint Laurent’s life of this trait was in his reliance on various mind-altering drugs—a chapter of his life that consumes and befouls roughly a full hour of the lengthy, two-and-a-half hour dalliance.”