Even in a contemporary film culture where no idea seems too thin to try twice, the arrival of two Yves Saint Laurent biopics in the space of five months counts as a distinct curiosity: The enduring influence of the French fashion god, who died in 2008, is beyond question, but his life doesn’t seem an obvious source of fascination to the filmgoing public. Yet if Jalil Lespert’s bland, authorized “Yves Saint Laurent,” which bowed domestically in January, represents the pret-a-porter version of its subject, Bertrand Bonello’s glossily intuitive vision is pure haute couture — considerably more spectacular, but also less practical, with its baroque ornamentation and slip-sliding chronology. The result, while seductively silly and largely unmoving, does a better job than its predecessor of celebrating Saint Laurent’s flamboyant artistry.
With its bigger-name cast and audio-visual sparkle, “Saint Laurent” also seems the safer commercial bet for international distribs, effectively the “Coco Before Chanel” to its rival’s “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky.” Sony Pictures Classics has already snatched it the film off the rack for the U.S., and should be feeling a little more confident than “Yves Saint Laurent” guardians the Weinstein Co. Still, Bonello’s sexier number must gamble on sustained audience interest in a chilly figure whose life — notwithstanding the drugs, desires and debauchery that go with the high-fashion terrain — wasn’t extraordinarily dramatic.
Bonello’s film covers less chronological ground than “Yves Saint Laurent” but goes a little harder on the hedonism, as you’d expect from the heedless director of “House of Pleasures” and “The Pornographer.” Bonello’s script, written with regular Jacques Audiard collaborator Thomas Bidegain, focuses less on Saint Laurent’s troubled romance with life partner Pierre Berge (which formed the spine of Lespert’s film) than on his individual neuroses, insecurities and delusions. As such, it’s a less flattering portrait, with machete-cheekboned Gaspard Ulliel an aloof, glassy presence throughout; he’s a more dreamily charismatic presence than Pierre Niney, the twitchy lead of the last film, though he bears less of a physical or behavioral resemblance to the subject. The upside for Saint Laurent’s admirers is that Bonello’s film reflects more of the designer’s tortured creative drive in its dark onyx surfaces; it’s the slightly deranged auteur portrait that a fellow artist and iconoclast deserves.
Entirely skipping past Saint Laurent’s youth, his early apprenticeship with Christian Dior and the foundation of his relationship with Berge (a fine, under-exploited Jeremie Renier), the film instead begins with the designer at the zenith of his celebrity — coinciding, unsurprisingly enough, with his emotional and spiritual nadir. Somewhat randomly, we open on an addled, depleted Saint Laurent conducting a telephone interview in 1974 — fleetingly recounting his traumatizing Algerian War experience and subsequent electroshock therapy — before rewinding to 1967, where his thriving company hums with high-pressure activity. (Production designer Katia Wyszkop’s pristine white re-creation of the YSL atelier evokes an emergency room more than it does a fashion house, perhaps foreshadowing Saint Laurent’s self-imposed physical decline.)
This moderate rewind is one of several odd structural decisions in the film, which Bonello evidently intends as more of a sensory history than a personal one — though that interpretation doesn’t excuse a rather banal montage that races through his 1968-1971 collections, crassly split-screened with archive footage from the May 1968 unrest and the Vietnam War. Key friends and collaborators are introduced without ceremony, and developed little beyond that. Models Betty Catroux (Aymeline Valade) and Loulou (Lea Seydoux, in what amounts to little more than a cameo) provide muse-like inspiration and vague emotional support, while more time is expended on Saint Laurent’s frustrated sexual dalliance with preening Karl Lagerfeld model Jacques de Bauscher (a perfectly cast Louis Garrel) than on his more lasting, conflicted partnership with Berge.
More detail, surprisingly, is expended on Berge’s deft, thankless management of Saint Laurent’s business affairs, well captured in an extended, busily bilingual scene in which Berge defends the independence of the YSL name (which he touchingly claims as his own) from an American investor (Brady Corbet) wary of the designer’s apparent decline. The Yank has reason to be: The further Bonello’s film delves into the 1970s, the less disciplined the storytelling becomes, frenziedly evoking Saint Laurent’s substance-hazed mental breakdown with recurring religious imagery, CGI serpents slithering across the frame and a homoerotic troupe of singing army legionnaires. Some pointed domestic detail survives the chaos, however: One grimly witty scene finds the designer’s beloved pug pup Moujik fatally strung out on assorted pills found on the floor.
Like “Yves Saint Laurent,” Bonello’s film chooses to omit the 1980s and 1990s, similarly climaxing with the triumphant creative comeback of his Moroccan-inspired 1976 collection — presented by editor Fabrice Rouaud in a fragmented split-screen format that appears to visually cross-reference the designer’s Piet Mondrian period of the previous decade. That’s all well and good, but the decision to intercut this final act with scenes of Saint Laurent (now played with crepe-surfaced weariness by Helmut Berger) in his 21st-century dotage is a misguided one, needlessly cluttering an overlong film that has hitherto demonstrated no allegiance to conventional biopic timelines.
Tech credits, as ever with Bonello, are mouth-wateringly accomplished, ensuring that its subject suffers as beautifully as possible from first scene to last. Cinematographer Josee Deshaies lights the film as shimmeringly in its neon-night club scenes as in more intimate glimpses from Saint Laurent’s gilded apartment, suggesting that no small moment of his life was ever left entirely undesigned. Bonello’s musical choices, meanwhile, range from soaring if over-familiar opera cues to Creedence Clearwater Revival to occasional Moroder-esque synths on his self-composed score.
The clothes, however, are obviously the prize contribution here, with Anais Romand’s wardrobe all the more impressive considering the absence of the YSL house’s blessing. Every garment here is covetable, from Saint Laurent’s own loudly natty tailoring to the iridescent jewel tones of his Marrakech-chic gowns to a simple shift dress created in his studio that he deems “as short, neat and precise as a gesture.” Not one word of that description applies to Bonello’s film, but Yves Saint Laurent also knew as well as anyone where excess was required.