Film Reviews

MISE EN SEAN – <i>Saint Laurent</i> (2014)

MISE EN SEAN – Saint Laurent (2014)

Sean Hanson

June 20th, 2015

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When making a biopic, filmmakers generally have two options: cover a whole lifetime, painting the subject in broad strokes, or focus on a significant period, giving us acute insight into one aspect of the subject. In Saint Laurent, co-writer/director Bertrand Bonello opts for the latter, covering nine years in the life of Yves Saint Laurent, but I’m not sure I walked away with insights, acute or otherwise, into this inscrutable fashion icon who spent most of his peak years trying to escape traps of his own design.

Then again, I’m not sure we’re meant to.

Other films explore the fine line between genius and madness so often it’s become a cliché. We lionize troubled men. We minimize or venerate their most troubling qualities: cruelty, violence, obsession, arrogance, narcissism, self-destructiveness. After two or three hours in a dark theater, we think we can understand men who rarely understood themselves. We give them endings, even though human lives rarely have endings. This formula yields great movies from time to time, but most biopics (especially ones that take the broad approach) are so bent on molding their subject to a three-act structure — rise, fall, redemption — they lose some measure of integrity in the process.

Enter Saint Laurent, a film other critics have called superficial, either shapeless and “running at its subject from all directions but never quite reaching its core” or so adherent to “the trajectory of success and excess followed by last act redemption [that it’s] familiar to the point of parody.” How can a film be both amorphous and formulaic? These contradictory readings are clues that Bonello’s using the format of the biopic to attack both the genre itself, the notion that we could divine some deep knowledge of Yves Saint Laurent in 150 minutes, and our endless memorializing of these troubled men. (Saint Laurent is the subject of a second, apparently more conventional biopic that will no doubt make its way stateside before the end of the year.)

Saint Laurent, the film reminds us again and again through moments both large and small, was a man who could not face reality — indeed, expended most of his energy avoiding reality, filling his posh living spaces with extravagant purchases and floating his brain in booze, uppers, and downers. A distraught seamstress asks for time off so she can get an abortion. Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) consoles her, assures her she will still have a job when she returns, and hands her a fat wad of francs to cover the procedure itself and any other expenses she might incur on her trip. That night, while his lover and business partner Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Renier) toasts Saint Laurent’s sensitivity to women’s needs as a designer, Saint Laurent leans over and whispers in a manager’s ear, effectively firing the seamstress. Earlier, his mother admonishes him: “You can’t even change a lightbulb.” He replies, “Why would I need to know how to change a lightbulb?”

He insulates himself with enablers, gradually pushing out anyone who intrudes upon his infantile perception of a world of art and hedonism, a world that’s all fun and beauty, ugliness and consequences be damned. His dog overdoses on pills Saint Laurent left lying about. His enablers find an exact lookalike for the dog. Saint Laurent gives this replacement dog the exact same name. Two more dogs took that name before Saint Laurent died in 2008. It would be impossible to reach the core of a person so willfully hollow from any direction. True to its subject, the film only makes a passing mention to Saint Laurent’s 1960 stay in a mental hospital, where a regimen of psychoactive drugs and electro-shock therapy set him down a decades-long spiral of self-medication and evasion.

In a scene late in the film — one of the few in which Saint Laurent does not appear — Bonello connects Saint Laurent’s denial of hard truths to the processes by which we memorialize notable figures, as four reporters wrestle with how to write Saint Laurent’s obituary. Two of the reporters trade effusive lines of praise. “What about the drinking and the drugs?” the third asks. The fourth dismisses the question with a wave of his hand and asks whether they have confirmation that Saint Laurent is actually dead. It’s not difficult to see how Bonello might be commenting on the biopic itself — especially the biopics rushed into production after a notable death. (Here’s lookin’ at you, jOBS.)

And his “redemption,” if we could call it that, consists only of Saint Laurent overcoming an artist’s block and completing a flurry of sketches for his famed 1976 collection well after deadline, leaving his seamstresses in a mad scramble to execute his designs. The film makes it a point that Saint Laurent — not his seamstresses — got all the credit, feigning humility as he takes an encore walk down the runway to a chorus of applause. By whose measure is that a redemption?

Saint Laurent is not a perfect film by any measure. Like its closest relative, The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s a bit repetitive and maybe half an hour too long, and the highs and lows of a healthy drug habit grow cinematically exhausting. On the other hand, Bonello and cinematographer Josée Deshaies work overtime to deliver eye-popping compositions. Almost every shot in this film — including the sustained shot of Saint Laurent’s dog dying, in a fit of seizures and vomiting — looks like a spread from some avant-garde fashion mag. It’s a difficult but appropriate choice to aestheticize such an awful moment, but it says more about Saint Laurent than any narrative device could.

Saint Laurent continues its run at the Bijou Metro. Click here for showtimes.

Sean Hanson is a Eugene film critic whose work has been published by Something Awful and Front Row Central. Mise en Sean, despite being a terrible pun, is an irregular column in which he provides critical analysis of films screening locally.

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