“I’m the last,” an aging Yves Saint Laurent mutters towards the end of Bertrand Bonello’s stylish biopic (one of two in the last twelve months) of the legendary fashion designer, Saint Laurent (2014), showing in competition today at the Cannes Film Festival. Gaspard Ulliel plays the young version of Yves as an otherworldly genius whose early success leads to a life of ennui, depression and substance abuse. Along the way, Saint Laurent is aided by the seamstresses of his atelier, his devoted partner and sometime-love Pierre (played by Jérémie Renier), the models who would become his muses and gatekeepers Loulou (played by the recently ubiquitous Lea Séydoux) and Betty (Aymeline Valade).
Early on, the making of the clothes themselves is given plenty of screentime. Saint Laurent and his helpers walk around the atelier in white coats; in their utter devotion and seriousness the’re like doctors working on a cure for cancer. Likewise, the business affairs that saw Yves’ name exploited to sell handbags, pret-a-porter and perfume is also played through as a serious endeavour, with a long scene devoted to a meeting of top shareholders. We never see the man struggle to get where he got, but instead we’re shown him struggling with life already at the pinnacle and wondering what to do next. Yves drinks far too much and has a penchant for dangerous relationships, especially with Jacques (a brilliant Louis Garrel), a dressing gown-clad, slick-haired aesthete with a gynaecologist’s chair in his living room.
Jacques introduces Saint Laurent to the joys of rough trade and encourages his pill-popping and hedonism. Andy Warhol writes letters of fervent admiration and names are not so much dropped as thrown, booze is swigged, drugs are devoured and the music plays. The toll begins to tell both physically and creatively, however, as Laurent is increasingly absent from his own affairs and spends his time in a state of numb intoxication. Bonello’s film is utterly enraptured with its handsome subject and seeks to be a worthy frame for the life. The actors pose as much as they perform, and each scene is as mounted as carefully as the cameos which Laurent collects in his stylishly furnished house. The disco scenes in particular invite the audience to simply sit back and watch the beautiful people dance.
We begin with Yves in a Parisian hotel room under an assumed name and giving an interview of remarkable candour which the company will later quash. Saint Laurent’s admission of his fragile mental state is a ham-fisted move to get the audience on his side – to sympathise with someone who for the rest of the film has it all, but obstinately refuses to enjoy it. Bonello isn’t afraid of showing the Emperor to be occasionally petty and cruel; he has a longtime worker sacked even as he celebrates the many years they’ve been together. And yet, if there’s one thing that holds the film back, it’s perhaps that we’ve seen this story a few too many times of late. Emerging out of the financial crisis, we’ve been accosted by a salutary shower of films lamenting the woes of the rich – The Wolf of Wall Street, Grace of Monaco and now this.
As the year titles come up again and again, time is registered only in hemlines and facial hair. Politics appears in a series of split-screen montages – alongside his catwalk collections – but it’s an ironic counterpoint, utterly fenced off from the work of a man whose mother says “has never been in a supermarket”. The trajectory of success and excess followed by last act redemption is familiar to the point of parody, and the ploys with time come over as gimmicky attempt to inject an element of surprise into the otherwise predictable narrative. Bonello’s Saint Laurent remains a stylish portrait of a man struggling with a lack of struggle; it’s gorgeous to look at, whilst at the same time conceding its own vacuous heart.
The 67th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May 2014. For more Cannes coverage, simply follow this link.