“In France these days, big movies, like Christian Louboutin heels, tend to come in pairs,” writes Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter, reminding us that 2009 saw two dueling Coco Chanel biopics. He then sketches a brief history of this year’s “War of Le Smoking—to cite Saint Laurent’s famous tuxedo suit for women.” With a blessing and a bit of help from the designer’s longtime companion and business partner, Pierre Berge, Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent opened in France in January before screening in Berlin‘s Panorama section. Reviews were mixed. Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, starring “the willowy Gaspard Ulliel,” as Stephen Holden calls him in the New York Times, premiered in competition in Cannes. What’s more, France is sending it into the best foreign-language film race at the 2015 Oscars. This week sees the North American premiere at the New York Film Festival.
Mintzer: “Ultimately, the Bonello version succeeds when it’s about the art and not the man, while the Lespert version works when it’s about the man (or men, as it’s really Berge’s story as well) and not the art. One film attempts to capture the creative process in all its elegant murkiness, while the other tries to show that behind every great man, there’s another great man. But neither movie exactly hits the nail on the head in terms of making a completely satisfying biopic about a major artist—which Saint Laurent most certainly was.”
Not everyone agrees. At RogerEbert.com, Godfrey Cheshire suggests that Saint Laurent “might be called impressionistic. The term here isn’t meant to impute any warm gauziness to the film’s look; on the contrary, Josée Deshaies’s meticulous 35mm color cinematography is fastidiously clear and cool. Rather, the French film’s approach to narrative, instead of employing the standard biopic method of trying to elucidate the subject’s life in logical (if not always chronological) order, seems to jump from one impression of the great couturier to another, slowly constructing a portrait that’s like seeing the man reflected in countless shards of a broken mirror…. As intelligent and precise as its subject, Saint Laurent also has a witty sense of its own cinematic patrimony. Late in the story, the narrative jumps forward to 1989, where we see the old Saint Laurent played by Helmut Berger (but with Ulliel’s voice). It’s a startling bit of casting (especially given that we also see the younger Berger in a bit of Visconti’s The Damned playing on TV at one point), but altogether fitting: Saint Laurent is nervy enough to consider itself Viscontian, and skilled enough to pull it off.”
At the press conference in New York, “Bonello, who also co-wrote the script, explained that his main line of inquiry was ‘what it cost Saint Laurent to be Saint Laurent every day,'” notes Melissa Anderson, writing for Artforum. “Or, more specifically, for several days between 1967 and 1977, a decade marked by YSL’s greatest excesses, whether in the atelier, on the runway, at the discothèque, or at the orgy…. And like its Belle Epoque–set predecessor [House of Pleasures (2011)], in which clouds of opium waft through the bordello, Saint Laurent has a profoundly intoxicating effect, never more so than when YSL and Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel) cruise each other across a crowded nightclub.” Both YSL biopics “dramatize several of the same incidents, but only Bonello’s does so intelligently: Saint Laurent forgoes the by-the-numbers soap operatics that burden so much of Lespert’s docudrama in favor of distilling—often wordlessly—mood, milieu, desire, and dissipation.”
Ashley Lee talks with Bonello for the Hollywood Reporter.
Update, 10/1: “There is so much to admire and love about the movie—especially visually—that I only wish I could wholly endorse it,” writes Nathaniel Rogers. “But, like many biopics before it, it is foolishly long…. Would that it had only ripped off the fussiest elements… That’d be an almost unbearably stylish movie about style rather than a stylish movie that risks being unbearable.”
Update, 10/2: “Where Lespert is deliberate,” writes R. Kurt Osenlund in Slant, “Bonello is almost abstractly light-handed, as if, after micro-managing every detail of scene dressing, he’s directing the film from afar, giving it ample breathing space. This approach has its benefits, specifically the evocation of Saint Laurent’s careless whims, which took him to the edge and back on a wave of hedonism liberally depicted by Bonello. But Lespert’s film managed to strike a balance between hard life and inner life, making an inquiry into something beyond Saint Laurent’s appetites.”
Update, 10/7: “Bonello knew that [he] needed to design a biopic that abandoned the normal narrative trajectory of the genre that highlights emotional travails crowned with an epiphany,” writes Doug Dibbern in the Notebook: “instead he would have to accentuate plastic surfaces—both the objets d’arts that populate the mise-en-scene as well as the cinematic construction itself—as the manifestations of this absent interiority. Thus, the movie jumps gleefully back and forth in time without any seeming cause-and-effect relationship between different episodes. And I loved all these moments that leapt away from the story itself like explosive parenthetical asides to indulge in the queer ferocity of its subject…. My only problem with the film—which I liked very much—was that it didn’t take its own modernist exploration of non-narrative sensuality as far as it could.”
Update, 10/9: Writing for the New Statesman, Oliver Farry considers the recent spate of biopics focusing on “Les Trente Glorieuses (‘the Glorious Thirty’), the three decades or so of economic growth and prosperity that France, like much of the developed world, experienced from the end of World War II till the Oil Crisis of 1973…. One of the more obvious reasons why figures from this era are being given the biopic treatment is the historical distance is ripe. There is also a new-found appetite among the French for the private lives of the rich and famous, something that has long been considered prurient by France’s intelligentsia… Another is a nostalgia that encompasses both left and right. The latter look on Les Trente Glorieuses as the last time when France enjoyed full prosperity, unhindered by a sluggish economy and a welfare state that struggles to pay for itself. This narrative of French déclinisme is mirrored by one of a paradise lost for the left… Where Lespert’s film was a rather mechanical trek through YSL’s life, Bonello’s is a more fragmented, diffuse and even Proustian experience… The ageing Saint Laurent looking back on a brilliant youth is more than a little reminiscent of France itself, buffeted by economic adversity and less sure of its place in the world, harking back to the glory days of Les Trente Glorieuses.”
Update, 10/13: “The film occasionally overreaches, sometimes because of Bonello’s insistent departures from biopic convention, as with the use of some flashy but unnecessary split screens,” finds Farihah Zaman at Reverse Shot. “Also the long running time allows for some detours that don’t add much to the bigger picture… Nevertheless such moments also reveal that Bonello’s aim is to create more of a personal experience of his subject’s life than an external, objective depiction of it; a complex, mercurial existence woven of many threads rather than a succession of events falling, indistinguishably, one after another.”