French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent earns a “Gandhi”-length, disjointed and arty film biography in “Saint Laurent,” a patience-testing period piece that skips through the designer’s glory years, catches up with him near the addled end and fails to deliver details of his greatest trauma.
In 21/2 hours, director Bertrand Bonello leaves out far more than he includes, avoids Laurent’s competitors, includes Andy Warhol — but only in narrated letters — and fixates on the driven, brilliant and yet somehow unfortunate fashion tycoon’s excesses and sex life.
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But with Gaspard Ulliel in the title role, the film’s many abortive snippets and impressionistic sketches come together in one iconic image. Playing Saint Laurent in his 1960s and ’70s heyday, Ulliel (“Hannibal Rising”) is as serene and as beautiful as the clothes his character wears, even the ugly ’70s suits. Tall, thin and angular, Ulliel is the personification of the Yves Saint Laurent line.
Fabrics that slink off shoulders and hug the hips and fall just so, colors and textures blend in the “elegance and beauty” that were Saint Laurent’s self-declared lifelong pursuit; Bonello at least shows us the clothes that made the legend, often in split screen re-creations of the fashion shows that made him.
Before the initials “YSL” were slapped on so many products as to lose their meaning, before his drug- and booze-fueled hard living got the best of him, before fashion itself passed him by, Yves Saint Laurent ruled couture, and “Saint Laurent” reminds of us this. It shows him expanding his brand, pushing from pricey runway wear to ready-to-wear and perfumes and selling out to American ownership. Saint Laurent, guided by his life partner/business partner Pierre Berge (Jeremie Renier), sold out early and often and got every bit as stinking rich as Coco Chanel.
We meet his “muses”: willowy blond model Betty Catroux (Aymeline Valade), whom he called his “twin,” and designer Loulou de la Falaise (Lea Seydoux).
We spend a staggering amount of time not quite overhearing conversations in the discotheques of the day, drinking, popping pills and smoking-smoking-smoking. The surgeon general ought to put a warning on “Saint Laurent.”
And we follow Saint Laurent cruising, and then into the coke-and-pill-packed love affair with Karl Lagerfeld’s paramour, Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel).
The movie’s failings are teased at the beginning, when a strung-out Saint Laurent checks into a Paris hotel and spills his guts to a reporter. Or so we’re told. This “story” is never printed or related, and we catch only a glimpse of his traumatic weeks as a young designer turned military conscript, subjected to hazing and drugs and electroshock treatments for the depression that followed.
We see nothing of his apprenticeship under Dior, and his fascination with writer Marcel Proust is mentioned several times but never explained. “Saint Laurent” plays like the most inside-baseball fashion film ever, too many random “highlights,” too few moments of inspiration.
And choosing simple white subtitles for a French film about a designer whose seamstresses, models and apartments were often bathed in white may be the biggest fashion blunder of all.
(At the Glenwood Arts, Tivoli, Town Center.)
| Roger Moore
Tribune News Service
Rated R | Time: 2:30
In French with subtitles