REVIEW: Saint Laurent

9 06 2015

Saint LaurentBertrand Bonello goes to war with the biopic genre in “Saint Laurent,” his portrait of iconoclastic French fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent.  Anyone hoping for a highlight reel or a filmed version of his Wikipedia page need not apply here.  In fact, prior to the final segment of the film, where an older incarnation of the designer appears and reflects back on his past, I would be hard pressed to name a single accomplishment of Saint Laurent.

In a sprawling yet highly constricted two and a half hour odyssey, Bonello (with the help of screenwriter Thomas Bidegain, a frequent collaborator with Jacques Audiard) presents scenes from Saint Laurent’s creative zenith of 1967-1976.  Nothing shown meets conventional standards for worthiness of inclusion when portraying a “great man,” however.  What plays out on screen in “Saint Laurent” often feels like the scenes that might immediately precede the big, important dramatic centerpieces of a flashier biopic.

The problem, though, is that these scenes sometimes feel selected with all the curated purpose of an iPod shuffle.  Bonello directs many a great episode within “Saint Laurent,” but if these moments were tiles, they would not add up to a mosaic.  In some sense, this is likely his aim by bucking the established conventions for treating real people in cinema.  Can any life be reduced to some kind of contrived narrative?

The big problem of the film is that it never seems to be about anything.  Bonello tightens the focus of time, but not necessarily the subject matters he sets out to cover.  Is the film about his artistry?  His business savvy?  His success coinciding with some of the biggest French political crises of the modern era?  His sexual libertinism with swinging lothario Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel)?  Gaspard Ulliel embodies Saint Laurent with confidence, but Bonello far too often has his star just “be” instead of “do.”

Nonetheless, “Saint Laurent” amount to something radical and worthwhile by painting a titanic figure with evocative, rather than demonstrative, strokes.  Bonello poses quite a challenge with his film, one that he might not solve here.  Yet his call to redefine our ways of seeing public figures as human beings could inspire greatness in a keen filmmaker that can more cogently articulate a thesis or takeaway.  B-2stars



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