Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Saint Laurent (opens in Cleveland June 19th at the Cedar Lee Theatre)

[SAINT LAURENT opens in Cleveland on Friday June 19th exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theatre.]

Review by Pamela Zoslov

After the celebrated fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent died of brain cancer in 2008, Pierre Bergé, his longtime lover, said, “Designing made him deeply miserable. Sadly, Yves was not built for joy. He was an unhappy person who didn't have a taste for life. Occasionally, he was happy, but life was difficult for him. The depression ran deep.”

The tres triste Saint Laurent, one of the most influential designers of women's haute couture, has become, in death, almost more famous for his “dark side” than his meteoric talent: his fits of rage, the bullying of underlings, the deep anxiety that drove him to seek refuge in alcohol, drugs and decadent S&M sex. A 2010 biography by Marie-Dominique Lelièvre , titled Yves Saint Laurent: Marvais Garcon (Bad Boy), painted an ugly portrait of a drunken, ashtray-throwing tyrant incapable of love. The figure of the genius/bad boy has proved irresistible to French filmmakers: last year two film biographies were released: YVES SAINT LAURENT, which covered the designer's life, and Bertrand Bonello's SAINT LAURENT, which focuses on the apex of the designer's career, 1967 to 1976.

Starring Gaspard Ulliel and Jeremie Renier as Yves and Pierre, Bonello's film, opening Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre, is ambitious, stylish and epic, in length if not breadth. It runs an almost unconscionable two and a half hours, though the run time is made more bearable by the beauty of the spectacle. The production design, re-creating Saint Laurent's lifestyle, the hectic times in which he lived, and his immortal clothing designs, is exquisite. Ulliel, dressed in Saint Laurent's famous spectacles and close-fitting suits, captures something of the designer's opaqueness and emotional fragility.

The film has a fractured structure, offering glimpses of Saint Laurent's earlier and later life and often employing divided-screen effects. (A particularly effective one juxtaposes Saint Laurent's runway designs with the social unrest on the streets in the late '60s.) We see Yves as a child in Algeria, doted upon by a stylish mother who encouraged his youthful talent for dress design; as a miserable conscript in 1960 in the Algerian war, followed by a nervous breakdown and electroshock treatment; and as a rueful old man (played by Helmut Berger), just before his death at age 71.

Most of the drama, if you could call it that, is set in the late '60s and early '70s, when Saint Laurent transformed women's fashion. Here he is, arranging fittings, sketching designs, collecting fine paintings, exchanging letters with Andy Warhol, popping pills, eating chocolate mousse. Here he is, hanging out at fashionable discotheques. (The music soundtrack, by director Bonello, features some very fine Northern Soul). At one of the clubs, he recruits Betty Catreux (Aymeline Valade), the beautiful blonde Chanel model who became his muse (YSL called her at one time his “twin sister”). He befriends Loulou de la Falaise (Léa Seydoux), a model whose bohemian style (a napkin ring for a bracelet, for instance) charms and inspires him. He's a workaholic who complains that at 33, he “feels old” and has “no life.” He partners with Bergé, domestically and professionally. He indulges his appetites for rough sex by picking up men at railway station urinals and taking up with the mustachioed Jacques (Louis Garrel), who owns a full complement of S&M furnishings and hardware, all zestfully employed at male sex orgies. Saint Laurent falls in love with Jacques, and is pained to have to share his affections with his other lover, designer Karl Lagerfeld.

Saint Laurent sinks deeper into addiction and debauchery, to the despair of Bergé, who at one point resorts to locking him inside his own house. In a particularly painful scene, a drugged-up Saint Laurent is injured when he falls, in a stupor, on broken glass; the fate of his beloved French bulldog (the first of a series, all named Moujik) is far worse. (If there are Oscars for animal actors, this pooch deserves top honors for his simulated agonies.)

“Isn't this all insignificant?” Saint Laurent asks in one of his many moments of existential, very French ennui. That is true in part of this film, which expends a lot of footage on the seamier (forgive the pun) side of the designer's life, when really, the clothes are everything. Saint Laurent, creator of the safari jacket, haute peasant/ethnic clothes, and the Mondrian dress — was a brilliant designer well ahead of his time. His women's tuxedo, called “Le Smoking” — a smartly cool, liberating look that seemed radical in 1966 — is still being made and worn today. Saint Laurent said, “For a woman, Le Smoking is an indispensable garment with which she finds herself continually in fashion, because it is about style, not fashion. Fashions come and go, but style is forever.” (In French with English subtitles.) 3 out of 4 stars (for style).

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