Saint Laurent is an epic film about the life of the famed fashion designer, a 150-minute immersion into the styles of the 1970s, which look better as time goes on. After all, aside from the 1920s, there was no decade in the last 100 years whose fashion was so distinct, so immediately recognizable, as that of the 1970s.
And Yves Saint Laurent represents the bold, colorful, tailored 1970s, not to be confused with the lumpy, polyester-leisure-suit ’70s.
For a time, Saint Laurent is a welcome invitation to a 40-year-old party, interspersed with scenes that give insight into the specifics of a jet-setting fashion designer’s life. But within a half-hour, the film starts running into a major obstacle: The times may have been epic and the achievement may have been epic, but the life was fairly squalid.
In fact, at a certain point, the life was indistinguishable from that of any other addict.
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This is the best don’t-do-drugs argument, and it’s never used. Trying to scare kids into thinking they’ll die of an overdose doesn’t work, because young people think they’re immortal. But show them a movie like Saint Laurent — show them how incredibly boring they could become, show them how drugs are a cookie cutter enforcing the most pathetic conformity — and it might give them pause.
At a certain point, Saint Laurent could be a drugged-up designer, a drugged-up rock star or a drugged-up homeless person. It’s the same dull story.
Director Bertrand Bonello does his best to dress up this staggering, sorry saga by relating Saint Laurent to his historical moment, sometimes splitting the screen and showing us what was going on in the world at any given period.
That’s interesting, but it doesn’t make Yves Saint Laurent interesting. As played by Gaspard Ulliel, Saint Laurent is little more than a neurasthenic cypher. Curiously, Ulliel was nominated for a best actor Cesar against yet another actor playing Saint Laurent, and the other guy won.
The fashion part of the story never quite loses its appeal, because there was a sleek opulence to Saint Laurent’s designs, and because the era in which he flourished was so rich. At times, watching the film is like going into a time machine to see the origins of the things remembered.
As someone who came of age in the 1970s and early 1980s, seeing the launch of Opium perfume or Saint Laurent’s adaptation of traditional Gypsy clothing was like watching coming attractions of a favorite old movie — like a neon sign saying, “Now coming to a former girlfriend near you.”
But Saint Laurent’s designs and working life take a back seat to scenes of him stuffing his face with pills, accidentally poisoning his dog and sleepwalking through sex with a variety of lovers. Two and a half hours of this. Bonello might as well have shown him sleeping eight hours or using the toilet for all that says about the man and his work.
In French and English with English subtitles
Exclusive: Landmark Magnolia, Dallas; Angelika Plano; opens June 5 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
Director: Bertrand Bonello
Cast: Gaspard Ulliel, Lea Seydoux
Rated: R (graphic nudity/strong sexual situations, substance abuse throughout, strong language)
Running time: 150 min.