By the time he sent his 1971 collection “Hommage aux Années 40s” down the runway, Yves Saint Laurent had established himself as the great modernizer of 20th-century fashion. Gone was the wasp-waisted, haute-feminine silhouette popularized by Dior, replaced with a broad-shouldered, thin-hipped androgyny that normalized trousers for women and suggested the tuxedo jacket as the height of glamour. Saint Laurent was the first designer to prioritize the street as his archive, dressing the Youth Quake in Mondrian prints and safari jackets, reworking the sartorial DNA of cool kids like Paloma Picasso and Loulou de la Falaise into clothes that offered arguments, propositions, claims for the nature of chic and the idea of a modern woman.
The homage collection tapped into the way such women had combed through flea markets to reinvent the styles worn by their mothers, an exercise in retro resignification that Saint Laurent mined for its most perverse dimension: these were clothes made and worn during the Nazi occupation of France. In front of an audience progressively more shocked by what they saw, there came men’s blazers reworked for women, fabrics that recalled curtains and upholstery, outrageous fur “chubbies” in primary colors that intimated the sort of garments that kept a woman of the night cozy. The collection would prove one of Saint Laurent’s most influential, rendering a whole set of brainy retro codes available to irreverent gender-fuckers like Jean-Paul Gaultier in the Eighties and Martin Margiela in the Nineties. It was, needless to say, a complete scandal.
“Hommage aux Années 40s” is one of two iconic YSL collections emphasized in Saint Laurent (more on the other later), and the way it operates in the film points to the sly historical and aesthetic tactics devised by director Bertrand Bonello to energize the relation of “bio” and “pic” in this stodgiest of genres. If you don’t know anything about the import of the 1971 succès de scandale, the movie doesn’t offer much help. There’s no montage of the creative process, no speculating on the designer’s thoughts or feelings about the collection, no contextualization or explanation of how the clothes were received, no narrative debriefing on the implications of it all. There is, in short, none of the banal psychologizing about the creative process you get in something like The Imitation Game. Bonello is playing at something quite different. It is true that if you pay close attention to the scenes preceding the unveiling of the collection you can observe Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) recall to a friend the parties his mother used to throw, “and their dresses, so 1940s…” That half-sentence, together with a glimpse of the couturier at work on a sketch, is the entirety of the backstory we’re given for one of the seminal events in postwar fashion. You’re more likely to remember the moment when Yves walks in on someone shooting heroin and politely apologizes for intruding, or the sex game initiated when his lover and business partner Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Renier) locks him in a closet like naughty little boy.
What you do get is an astonishing reenactment of the collection itself, lavishly re-created by costume designer Anaïs Romand (working without direct access to the YSL archive and against the open hostility of Bergé, who backed the far more conventional 2013 biopic directed by Jalil Lespert). Bonello stages a crisp procession of models descending a marble staircase and circulating through an audience of Parisian high society. As the scene progresses we sense that something is at stake here, some curious affect is being generated by the clothes, some kind of heightening of attention and sensation has pervaded the room, but the film refrains from telegraphing any cue as to what, exactly, any of this means. And so we look at the clothes and we think about them: are they pretty? Daring? Awkward? What kind of idea or attitude do they express? What values or sensibilities are they challenging or affirming? What kind of woman is being proposed by them?
This is part of the method of Saint Laurent: to give us images that belong to history without reducing them to it, to present scenes from a life where the scenography assumes a life of its own. Bonello draws on a sort of richly sensual distancing effect that we might better term a dissolving. The film doesn’t dress up historical materials so much as grant them a momentary flowering or crystallization out of some more primary substratum of tone, texture, atmosphere, affect. It is one of those biopics engaged with creative genius, like Peter Watkins’s Edvard Munch or Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh, whose integrity is wholly independent of its biographical dimension. Saint Laurent will certainly tell you things about the life and times of a famous fashion designer, but its ideal viewer is one who doesn’t know anything about Yves Saint Laurent, and its effect is to place every viewer in this situation.
Here comes Betty Catroux (Aymeline Valade), the lithe, six-foot-tall, supremely self-contained model who became muse to Saint Laurent. Her entry into the narrative ticks off an item of YSL lore, but her meaning in the movie is the way she moves across the nightclub, the poise and rhythm of her body outlined in the jewel tones of a narcotic dance floor. Check off another box for Loulou de la Falaise (Léa Seydoux), who you can learn all about on Wikipedia if you’re so inclined, but who functions in the world of Saint Laurent as a zone of affable, ramshackle insouciance in counterpoise to Betty’s cool, erect glamour. Texture upon texture.
In another kind of movie, debauched playboy Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel) would set in motion the mechanics of a cautionary tale: too many drugs, too much sex, the incarnation of the devil on your shoulder who takes you cruising in the bushes, shows you how to buttfuck on a gynecological chair, throws pill-popping orgies on the cusp of the AIDS crisis. Saint Laurent associates de Bascher with the designer’s heaviest period of substance abuse, but he isn’t made the puppet of any moral drama. The mounting drug stupor sustained across the second half of the movie isn’t there to set up an obstacle to be overcome, or signify a place of dark experiment vital for the creative genius, or get linked up with a psychological structure or character trait, or comment on the vicissitudes of fame, power, and money. Bonello suppresses this kind of message-making on the grounds that it would explain what doesn’t require explanation. Saint Laurent is a great fashion movie because it takes fashion as a model for how to generate ideas and sensations out of a deep engagement with surfaces.
The movie opens in 1974 as Saint Laurent checks into a Paris hotel under the name M. Swann and proceeds to confess intimate details of his life to a reporter. It’s a curious way to begin, elliptical and oblique, and the movie quickly leaps back to the YSL atelier in 1967 to initiate a more conventional chronology. More or less: the “M. Swann” alias signals Saint Laurent’s identification with Proust while heralding Bonello’s way of mingling history with memory, fact, and sensation, the expectations of biography with the autonomy of perception.
Saint Laurent is a memory movie with a splendidly idiosyncratic sense of rhythm and pace. Scenes variously play out with abrupt shifts or deliberative longueurs; the bold title cards that mark each change of year structure the narrative without delimiting neat, summarizable chapters. A split-screen montage that sequences a run of YSL collections against the political crises of the late Sixties might have come off as glib were it not so elegantly framed (and commented on) as a fantasia that unfolds in the interval of a single gyration of Betty’s hips, dancing the night away.
At two and a half hours, Saint Laurent justifies its length with real force as its complete form emerges into view. The final stretch of the film reconnects to the moment of Yves in the Paris hotel room, during his darkest days of lassitude and drug use, in order to regroup and build to an extended, wondrously polyphonic climax organized around the legendary 1976 “Ballet Russes” collection. Where the “40s” collection was strategically decontextualized, Bonello devotes a great deal of attention to the production of the Russian collection. Gathering up all its emotional, sensual, and formal energies, the movie channels them through the material production of the clothes. As Saint Laurent’s sketches arrive at his atelier, and his devoted craftspeople set to work on the beguiling task of translating pencil and ink wash into textiles, silhouettes, embellishments, and accessories, one is tempted to read an allegory of the task Bonello set for himself.
The Russian collection was extravagant to the max, a deluge of flowing liquid luxury and opulent haute couture finishes. The film staggers and scintillates on contact with it, splintering into a kaleidoscope of multiple frames and perspectives. This spatial fragmentation is preceded in the narrative by a temporal analogue. Past, present, and future commingle; a glimpse of Saint Laurent’s childhood pierces the texture of the film, as do visions of the elderly Yves, ruminating in the company of a manservant, surrounded by a lifetime’s hoarding of precious tchotchkes and modernist art. This chronological fracturing arrives as an exhausted Saint Laurent checks into the hospital, suggesting that the film has been taken over by its protagonist’s imaginings or delusions. Both the past and future materials can be indexed to specific data: the childhood scenes look back to the days that inspired the “Hommage” collection, and the future scenes allude to the 1993 sale of the Yves Saint Laurent brand to a division of a French oil company for 3.6 billion francs. By now, however, every line of fact or fiction, history or atmosphere, real or imaginary have been swept up in a symphonic movement at once triumphal and melancholy, a pouring forth of sights and sounds from the cool, enigmatic vessel of Monsieur Yves Saint Laurent.
I suppose I should end by saying something about Ulliel’s performance, but maybe that’s my own strategic omission, or the subject for a different kind of appreciation, one that might undertake to analyze how, beyond the uncanny physical resemblance to his model and the technical precision of his body language, Ulliel organizes his effects around an obscure interiority. So I’ll just leave be and close, as the movie does itself, on a note of appreciation for the voluptuous form and fabric of a life enclosed by an enigmatic smile.