Dreamy and impressionistic, full of debauchery, drugs, disco, and dazzling couture, Saint Laurent is a biopic that picks its moments, leaving backstory behind. If you don't know your fashion biz history going in, you may not know all that more coming out. Important info is left lying there, like taffeta swatches on the atelier floor.
Set mostly in the 1970s, with a mysterious prologue that feels like a spy movie by Antonioni, Saint Laurent stars Gaspard Ulliel as the hugely influential French designer with the thick-rimmed glasses and trademark YSL monogram. This Yves moves languorously through the worlds of high fashion, glammy clubs, and grungy rent-boy trysting spots, blowing cigarette plumes wherever he goes. Now and then, he picks up a pad and pencil and sketches a dress, a jacket, a chemise. His team of pattern-makers and seamstresses, wearing lab coats and looks of utter devotion, transform the drawings into exquisite articles of clothing.
It's a process that involves skill and artistry and more than a little magic, too. Not to mention flashbacks to Saint Laurent's childhood in Algiers - a place he repairs to for inspiration.
One thing director Bertrand Bonello does incredibly well is to bring poetry to this undertaking - the creation of a collection, from the first hazy ideas to the frenzied model fittings and the anxiety-fueled presentation to the public, the press.
Flanked through the years by the posh bohemian and jewelry-maker Loulou de la Falaise (Blue Is the Warmest Color's Lea Seydoux) and the lanky model and muse Betty Catroux (Aymeline Valade), Saint Laurent comes off as a man at once diffident and confident, innocent and intensely ambitious. The relationship with business partner and one-time life partner Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Renier) is sorely tested when Saint Laurent falls for the mustachioed, muscular Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel). The guy strikes sultry poses, staring at his lover with danger in his eyes.
Saint Laurent is longish and repetitive, not unlike the Velvet Underground song - "Venus In Furs," of course - that Saint Laurent's new pen pal, Andy Warhol, sends along. But it's that collision of art and music and fashion that Bonello's movie captures with such cool, smoky style. Style as substance - and substance abuse.