Film history is littered with multiple takes on a particular story or subject coming out within close proximity to one another. That one of these subjects would be French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent just adds something that tends to happen more with blockbusters to the art house audience. Fortunately, in spite of their similar subject matter, the two films – Yves Saint Laurent, released domestically last summer, and Saint Laurent – approach the biopic format in different ways. The former, which secured the blessing of Saint Laurent’s business partner and former lover, Pierre Bergé, followed a more traditional format that spanned Saint Laurent’s life and put special weight on the relationship between Saint Laurent and Bergé. In spite of strong performances, the film failed to make much of an impact. It was also far too conventional for a film focused on a trendsetting fashion designer.
Leave it to the other film, Saint Laurent, to come up with something more exciting and abstract. Though portions of the film venture nearer to the present, the bulk of Saint Laurent takes place during Saint Laurent’s (Gaspard Ulliel) career peak and personal fall in the 1960s and 1970s. And rather than honing in on a particular narrative, Saint Laurent bathes in the atmosphere surrounding the designer during this part of his life.
It should go without saying, but it’s worth noting anyway: narratively, Saint Laurent is not the biopic that will inform viewers about Saint Laurent’s life. The insights the film provides are more about the recurring themes during this time, both in regards to his specific work settings and the vices that would consume him during this time. With two and a half hours of running time, Saint Laurent commits itself to recreating these moments at length.
One particular point in time from the 1970s dominates the film: the designer’s affair with Jacques De Bascher (Louis Garrel) in 1974. The film focuses on the hedonism of the affair without significantly delving into the fact that De Bascher was the long-term partner of Saint Laurent’s rival, Karl Lagerfeld. It’s an interesting approach to avoid the part of this affair that might fuel another biopic. Running a close second in terms of domination is the 1976 unveiling of Saint Laurent’s “Russian” collection, which highlights the final half hour of the film.
The overall lack of structure doesn’t always work. Director Bertrand Bonello devotes multiple lengthy sequences to business negotiations conducted by Bergé (Jérémie Renier), which add nothing to the film (though the scenes are fascinating on their own, I should note). Towards the end of the film, there’s also the introduction of Saint Laurent towards the end of his life (played in these scenes by Helmut Berger), which feels disconnected from what’s come in the previous two hours. Still, the overall effect of Bonello’s style-over-substance (but not substances) approach makes Saint Laurent the more intriguing of the two biopics.