“Saint Laurent” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. R, 2:15, two and a half stars out of four.
There’s a scene late in “Saint Laurent” where a group of journalists are (prematurely) writing the obituary for legendary fashion designer Yves St. Laurent, finding tidy phrases to sum up the man’s life and impact (“Make sure you include the word ‘visionary’.”) It seems to sum up director and co-writer Bertrand Bonello’s distaste for the idea of making a traditional biopic, with a clean narrative arc and easily identifiable causes-and-effects.
Instead, “Saint Laurent” goes for mood, trying to capture the essence of what it must have been like to be Saint Laurent during his most productive period (1967-1976) rather than explain the man. The film is a riot of sound and color, lingering on beautiful surfaces (including the face of actor Gaspard Ulliel, playing the young St. Laurent), and mirrors reflecting onto mirrors. It’s an intoxicating approach, but sometimes Saint Laurent gets lost in all the reflections.
The film starts in 1974, as an impeccably dressed Saint Laurent checks into a Paris hotel (“to sleep,” he tells the front desk). As he gazes out the window at the Eiffel Tower in the foggy distance, he does a phone interview with a journalist, where he reveals he was traumatized during the Algerian War to the point where he had to be institutionalized. The juxtaposition between public elegance and private pain is a recurring theme throughout the film.
Then the film jumps back to 1967, showing Saint Laurent in the studio, his measurements exacting and precise as he creates the clothes that will define fashion for a generation. (“This is style,” one of his underlings tells a hesitant client. “Fashion passes like a train.”) He parties, clashes with his business partners (include Jeremie Renier), and falls in and out of love affairs with men and friendships with women. He seems immune to the turmoil of his era; in one sequence, Bonello presents a split screen, with black-and-white footage of protests and war in one half of the frame, and Saint Laurent’s runway models in the other half. The two never meet.
As Saint Laurent becomes more and more famous, his personal life crumbles, and he becomes addicted to drink and drugs. His nadir seemingly comes in a scene when, he rolls naked on broken glass on his bedroom floor while one of his dogs overdoses on his leftover pills. But there’s no “epiphany” moment. He just buries the dog and carries on.
Saint Laurent’s confounding, pathetic and sometimes openly repellent behavior keeps the audience at a distance, as does Bonello’s tailoring of his life to suit his vision. The film flips back and forth in time without explanation, passes fantasy sequences as reality, and frustratingly keeps Saint Laurent’s inner life at bay. “Saint Laurent’ is a fascinating tour of the man’s life and times, but too often we feel like it’s a portrait that’s not even skin-deep, but fabric-deep.