There's a wonderful scene in "Saint Laurent," the sumptuous, exciting and also maddening new film by Bertrand Bonello, in which we watch the famous designer casually display his brilliance.
A wealthy, middle-aged customer comes to Yves Saint Laurent's studio, and the designer only has a few moments for her. She tries on one of his crisp pantsuits — as fashionistas know, YSL would change the landscape of women's fashion with this look — and she just isn't sure. Isn't this way too masculine, she asks?
No, YSL (an excellent Gaspard Ulliel) tells her with imposing certainty, despite his introverted nature: she will be alluring. He instructs her to relax, put her hands in the trouser pockets, stroll around a bit. He makes her let her hair down from its bun. And amazingly, the woman (Valerie Bruni Tedeschi) does indeed transform before our eyes, into a confident and beautiful creature. No pyrotechnics here, just a perfectly modulated scene displaying the simple nature of YSL's talent — and that of every great designer — which is to make the customer feel great.
Would that the entire 151-minute film were as effective as this scene. It's clear from the beginning that "Saint Laurent" — the second recent feature film about the designer — isn't a typical biopic; Bonello feels no need to follow the straight chronological trajectory that often fatally weighs down other films. That's a good thing — except, it must be said, this film jumps around so much in time that we simply lose track of where we are.
Also frustrating is Bonello's assumption that his audience is familiar with the central figures in the designer's life; that's not likely true outside of France, and more explanation would have been welcome.
The acting, though, is excellent, particularly Ulliel's work as the Algerian-born designer who cut his teeth working for Christian Dior (the film doesn't cover this early part of his life) and came to transform the way modern women dressed.
The film, set mainly in the late '60s and the '70s, touches on Saint Laurent's relationships with some of his muses, like Loulou de la Falaise (Lea Seydoux) and model Betty Catroux (Aymeline Valade), and on his amorous relationships: with longtime lover and business partner Pierre Berge (Jeremie Renier), and with partyboy-model Jacques de Bauscher (a compellingly sexy Louis Garrel). There's a startling orgy scene, and an even more startling scene involving YSL's beloved bulldog Moujik, who suffers a terrible fate during a drug-hazed night. (Saint Laurent is almost never shown without a drink and a cigarette in his hands, and often imbibing various pills, some of which induce hallucinations like serpents in his bed.)
There are also tamer scenes of life in the YSL studio, with its hard-working seamstresses and exacting deputies demanding precise adherence to the master's instructions. Saint Laurent was not the easiest man to work for; when one seamstress comes to him weeping, saying she needs money for an abortion, he comforts her and gives her a wad of cash — then asks a deputy to fire her.
The most exciting part of the film is the designer's famous show of sumptuous Moroccan-inspired gowns, bursting with wild color and verve. It's thrilling to watch the collection brought together — sketches made, luxury fabrics cut and shaped — and then displayed, in a high-stakes runway show.
Bonello splits the screen into as many as seven parts here — echoing the Mondrian paintings Saint Laurent loved — showing models at different angles, silky fabrics swishing, the rapt audience, and YSL himself, standing in the wings, with nothing left to do but watch. At this moment, "Saint Laurent" hints at the essence of what makes a designer great: a quality that's impossible to explain, but incredibly exciting to behold.
"Saint Laurent," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America "for graphic nudity/strong sexual situations, substance abuse throughout and some language." Running time: 151 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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