In 1998, French filmmaker Olivier Meyrou filmed Yves Saint Laurent as he prepared what would be his final collection before the top-tier fashion brand sold to Gucci the following year. It was the end of an era, as Saint Laurent was already the last of the great French designers to operate his own house, and this would be his “Celebration” — although the man Meyrou observed was far different from what his legend suggested: reclusive, irritable, virtually silent, and, perhaps most shockingly, quite inelegant.
Ironic title notwithstanding, “Celebration” feels less like hollow adulation than some kind of macabre autopsy conducted on a still-living specimen. Saint Laurent died a full decade later, but seems barely there in this often contradictory portrait, which is simultaneously respectful of his genius (so much so that it takes the fact for granted, doing little to hype a figure about whom many speak so highly) and perturbed by the twitching, tragic creature Saint Laurent has become. Still, what kind of monster is cooed over by supermodels and treated like royalty by his staff? Invisible to the world but vital to executing the boss’s vision, those unsung worker bees prove to be the film’s most likable characters, fussing over impossible deadlines, or revisiting their old headquarters at 5 Marceau (which Meyrou intended as the film’s original title).
This could hardly be the way Saint Laurent would want to be immortalized, and so it’s no great surprise that Pierre Bergé, his partner in business and in life, successfully sued to have the film suppressed. For years, the rumor was that Bergé, who had given Meyrou permission to film in the first place, did not like the way it depicted him personally. The director tells a slightly different story: At the film’s IDFA “premiere,” he described Bergé as being so committed to playing “metteur en scène” of Saint Laurent’s image that the project hardly allowed room for a second director to approach from the outside and offer a different point of view. And yet, he says, Bergé asked to view the film in 2015, finally giving it his blessing.
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Now, two decades after filming began, “Celebration” has found its way into the world (it opened in France on Nov. 14), unchanged but for a few minor tweaks. The earlier version had been shown publicly just once before, at the 2007 Berlinale, although Meyrou had since privately shared it with a lucky few, including filmmakers Gus Van Sant and Bertrand Bonello. The influence can be seen on Bonello’s 2014 “Saint Laurent,” particularly in its unflattering depiction of Bergé, and feels like a missing piece of the puzzle for fans of Paul Thomas Anderson’s twisted fashion-world portrait “Phantom Thread.”
In interviews, Anderson frequently claimed that he had been inspired by Balenciaga and various other designers, but certain character traits of rigid control freak Reynolds Woodcock are so clearly derived from Saint Laurent’s situation that he must have seen “Celebration.” For example, a scene in which the staff “make themselves small” before the master comes to inspect his collection bears an uncanny resemblance to one in “Phantom Thread,” while the relationship between Daniel Day-Lewis’ character and his sister was almost certainly informed by the stern-yet-supportive dynamic between Saint Laurent and Bergé.
Astonishingly enough, over the course of nearly three years of access, Meyrou filmed just 18 hours of material, shooting on Super 16 — better resolution than digital formats of the time, but not nearly as crisp as more modern documentaries. These days, fashion docs are a dime a dozen, but seldom probe into the psychology or mental profile of the volatile artists they depict, coming across as gushy hagiographies of their subjects. Meyrou maintains a more critical distance of his subject, employing a number of curious artistic choices to convey his sense of Saint Laurent — most notably, a sinister, alien-sounding electronic score from the late horror-movie composer François-Eudes Chanfrault (“High Tension,” “Inside”) designed to convey the designer’s tortured mental space.
Meyrou presents Saint Laurent in two different lights, alternating between color and monochromatic film stocks to make his point. In black and white, he attempts to capture the legend, first seen anguishing in extreme closeup over a drawing. This is the Saint Laurent shown to the world: the icon, seen creating his final collection, alternately pampering and ignoring his dog Moujik, and giving a candid interview to a French journalist in which the notoriously difficult designer claims to have made a new start, now that he has “decided to work with happiness.” Meyrou reserves color for the reality of the situation, focusing on Bergé and the petites mains — literally, the “small hands” (seamstresses, assistants, and the like) — who do the actual work of transforming his sketches into beautiful garments, tearing apart and re-sewing a coat or dress as many times as needed until it’s perfect.
In one scene — in color, of course — Meyrou observes Saint Laurent evaluating his latest collection; the director slyly shifts focus to the distant background, where Bergé hides behind a doorframe, clearly concerned about what the master will think. This may as well be the defining shot of the movie, and one that shows a far more complicated version of the relationship between the two men: the brilliant “sleepwalker” (in Bergé’s words) and the enabler-guide who goes to extraordinary lengths such that Yves “mustn’t be awakened.” Later, immediately following a 1999 CFDA awards ceremony, Bergé giddily pries the trophy from his partner’s hands. “Probably I have a part of that,” he says to the camera. Probably he is right, although it might have been classier to let the legend have his moment.
One of the clear takeaways of Meyrou’s film is that neither man would have achieved what he did without the other. Still, no one was more involved in manicuring Saint Laurent’s image than Bergé, and it’s understandable that he would have seen the documentary as undermining the reputation they had worked so hard to build (down to the creation of temperature controlled archives where the brand’s classic garments are stored). “Celebration” doesn’t feel entirely fair, but it’s a priceless addition to our understanding of how Yves Saint Laurent — the man, the myth, la marque — operated: a flawed film whose mere existence makes it essential viewing.