Elegance, Beauty, Anxiety and Torment

illustration by Brianna Ashby
I don’t remember how I ended up in a Godard class as an undergrad at SFSU. I knew nothing of Jean-Luc. I had grown up in the deep-eastern suburbs of San Francisco, where the only vintage film in our pre-multiplex-era theater was a one-time showing of Andre de Toth’s House of Wax in 3D. Otherwise, afternoon-TV Godzilla films and early-HBO repeats of Clockwork Orange were about as international as it got in my hometown.

But somehow I stumbled into this Godard class, and once a week I’d drive out to the borderline of Daly City to listen to my disgruntled professor. Due to space limitations in the film department, he was forced to lecture in a tiny conference room while my class (and my friend Alan, a certified Godard-freak who wasn’t in the class but insisted on auditing) sat around a large oval table, watching 16 mm prints of Godard’s extensive 60s’ oeuvre, as if in a board meeting.

It wasn’t an ideal educational environment, but the intimate and nearly surreal setting felt almost like participating in one of Godard’s long, talky takes; by the end of the class, I was even starting to understand some French. I didn’t always understand Godard’s point of view—I was a naif while he was busy revolutionizing the film-narrative process in France—but his film language, that’s stuck with me.

I’m rarely reminded of Godard when watching modern movies, but Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, a biopic that reads more like a time-travel historical dialogue shot by 60s-era Godard, comes pretty close. Besides the huge primary-colored yearly inter-titles to steer you through 1967-1976— designer Yves Saint Laurent’s most productive era—there’s a complete lack of hand-holding narrative on the pertinent details of this difficult prodigy’s life and work.

If you don’t know much about Yves Saint Laurent and his times, Bonello doesn’t really give a damn about instructing you. Instead he plunks you into a turbulent past, like time-travel without a handbook. And, like Godard, he’s far more interested in the visual mechanics involved in telling his tale. If you find yourself intrigued, as I was, you can always study up on the relevant details afterward—that’s what the internet is for. Saint Laurent just might be the first biopic to take that into consideration.

With biography, we tend to crave a coherent narrative, but Saint Laurent tells the story of a man with a distinctly atypical arc. He was running the House of Dior at age 22 and by 33 he had already absorbed the culture-altering dynamics of his time—class upheaval, civil unrest, war protests, women’s rights, gay rights—and found a way to translate it into fashion for the modern woman. Pantsuits, tailored menswear, tuxedo-wear, vintage-wear, exoticism—Saint Laurent envisioned a woman who was going places, who would need some real pockets to put her keys and cigarettes in, who moved with exuberance, particularly on the dance floor to the heavy beat of the Northern soul sound beneath a mesmerizing neon-lit ceiling.

The rules of Couture were breaking. Saint Laurent’s opening scenes take us into the starchy clinical world of his house of fashion, assistants crying at their machines when their seams won’t lay flat. Models’ measurements are recorded robotically as Yves (Gaspard Ulliel) spoons at his chocolate mousse, sketching gowns to classical music and briskly removing offending sleeves to make a garment “short, neat, precise as a gesture.” This is a rarified environment.

But then he’s in dark basement nightclubs, discovering modern-age muses: Betty Catroux (Aymeline Valade), all in black, his androgynous twin-soul, and vintage-wearing Bohemian LouLou de la Falaise (Léa Seydoux). Saint Laurent reads a letter from Andy Warhol as the camera pans around his elegantly mod Rive Gauche boutique: I love your tuxedo. I love your Mondrian dress. Fashion is as fleeting as advertising. That’s what makes it sublime. Today, on opposite sides of the ocean, we’re the two great artists of the second half of the century. Warhol complains that he’s bored by his success and recommends courting fame as an anecdote, as well as an exciting new band he’s producing. Saint Laurent puts the needle down on “Venus in Furs,” watching traffic go by his store window. In this way, with no explanation necessary—Warhol’s voice, the red shop mannequins wearing women’s tuxedos, the Velvet Underground—a period piece feels new. The screen splits with newsreel footage of the ’68 uprising in the streets of Paris and the civil-rights upheaval in the U.S., right alongside YSL collections — safari suits, elegant pantsuits, revealing sheers. Life informs fashion.

The business of the YSL brand, parlayed by Saint Laurent’s longtime on-again-off-again partner, Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Renier), is paid tribute to in a lengthy scene in both English and French (that I’m still attempting to decipher) between U.S. investors, a translator, and Bergé. The dramatic tension is muddled by the limits of language and cultural clashes between the Americans and the French. Godard, with his Marxist leanings, might have played it as absurd, but in Saint Laurent it’s merely disorientating, while still remaining respectful to the creative process. Bergé, who didn’t authorize this film, gets his due as the bulldogged backstage player with the intelligence to pull off a seemingly impossible partnership between art and commerce.

A linear biopic rarely portrays genius, or creativity, or addiction without resorting to dull clichés. Bonello seems aware of this deadening effect and concentrates instead on the visuals, creating a near-tableau aesthetic of gay orgies, dance clubs, jet-set Marrakesh parties, and lavish fashion shows. He certainly knew another movie on Saint Laurent was also in the making (Yves Saint Laurent, released the same year) and he purposefully avoids all the “rise to fame” tropes, dropping us straight into Saint Laurent’s success story, already in progress, and then proceeding to chop the narrative up even further, making Saint Laurent more of a memory piece of the past.

This jarring effect, reminiscent of Godard’s famous jump cutting, announces that we’re watching an idea of a man’s life, not an outright imitation. It’s a distancing technique that, along with the lush production design and understated acting, leaves an audience never quite knowing what to expect next, even if they know the story. And there’s a mystery left in the missing pieces.

The gaps in the narrative leave us with a dream of Yves Saint Laurent, one that’s obsessively observational, like the glances between oily but alluring Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel) and Saint Laurent across a crowded dance floor filled with undulating revelers. The camera languidly pans back and forth between them, in no particular hurry, until they walk toward each other and meet. Their attraction, like a drug, is emphasized—before the relationship slides into its downward spiral with squalor and snakes.

Saint Laurent’s various addictions, beginning with medication prescribed during his enforced hospital stay during the Algerian war, hijack the narrative during long scenes that force us to witness the mental and physical damage that results from his constant inebriation. A tightly wound Saint Laurent goes under, victim to anxiety, overwork, perfectionism, and Catholic guilt (hinted at by the crucifix hanging by the bed in his elegant but prison-like apartment).

Even a film as artfully directed as Saint Laurent can’t resist showing the opulent Russian Ballet collection from 1976 as the biopic “triumph of the artist” staple. But before we’re dazzled by that riot of color and splendor, we’re suddenly wrenched into the future. The timeline is askew — Yves is old, a recluse, worrying that he didn’t give back to his muses as much as they gave him. Confused as to who he’s lost along the way, his beloved French bulldog, the doomed De Bascher. A final glimpse of his would-be muse Talitha Getty (Jasmine Trinca) appears like an unsolved Technicolor crime scene from a noir mystery. The golden boy has gone to seed, surrounded by luxury, still sharp enough to know when to hang up his blue drafting pencils for good. Nothing lasts, including success. But then he’s a child, dressing the women in his family, producing fashion shows with paper dolls, unhappy because his efforts aren’t perfect. Back and forth in time, like memories as we age. It can be a frustrating experience for anyone unmoored by experimental narrative.

Watching the drearily eroding effects of time on elder Saint Laurent, before we return to a hard-won (split-screen) triumph from his past, is a risky narrative decision, and to some perhaps an infuriating one. But Saint Laurent isn’t a comfortable retelling. Instead it’s a lavish and debauched one, steeped in our own modern history, a fearless creation—a choppy, frustrating, minimalist approach to a genius of fashion, a man every bit as difficult as the film portraying him. In that sense, it reflects him well.