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Celebrity, Saint, or Sinner?

Saint Laurent

Photography Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Why two movies about legendary fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent within one year? And why now?

Writer-Director Bertrand Bonello’s biopic Saint Laurent retraces events shown more clearly in last year’s release, Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent. Both films — openly depicting the designer’s private affairs — are part of a very contemporary acceptance of Saint Laurent’s gayness and career. But Bonello focuses on the sexual desperation behind celebrity. Anyone expecting a fashion spectacle like Lespert’s finale gets a seriously, frustratingly philosophical art-movie instead.

Note how Bonello’s echoes Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1952 epic, book-length essay Saint Genet, about the gay writer-filmmaker, playwright-provocateur Jean Genet. Placing fashion designer St. Laurent alongside Genet, Bonello readily takes a gay icon as a figure of historical, political, even spiritual importance. But he’s got his celebrity worship confused.

Sartre’s subtitle “Artist and Martyr” explains Bonello’s approach. He parallels the fashionista’s creativity with his sexual exploits in the mid-1970s, an era when gayness implied outlawry (the infamous New York City sex club The Anvil is mentioned). But whereas Sartre’s “sainthood” implied exceptional trials, singular dedication and an in-depth moral analysis, Bonello’s couturier is neither a selfless martyr nor an officially sanitized figure. Participation in the era’s outré sex-and-drug revels makes him a stereotype of the insatiable gay '70s rather than a test-case for canonization. Is he entrepreneur or artist, sinner or saint?

All this is overloaded and a bit misguided since Saint Laurent’s late career pressures outweigh sexual guilt and liberation. “I fought the fight for elegance,” intones actor Gaspard Ulliel who plays less of a person than did Pierre Niney, just the bespectacled, pompadoured icon resembling the old Groucho masks.

An interminable series of time-jumping scenes alternate Saint Laurent’s disco nights, orgies, drug binges, hallucinations, and runway shows. It’s gossipy and maybe even unsettling when today’s gay figures move closer and closer to mainstream acceptance and normalized heterosexual social models. So as Bonello complicates the martyrdom within Saint Laurent’s debauchery, the film becomes fussy, meaningless — and exasperating. (Saint Laurent imagines his own senility, acted by balding Helmut Berger who references his own androgynous performance in Visconti’s The Damned, also recalling the old codger at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.)    

Saint Laurent

Gaspard Ulliel (left) and Louis Garrel

By the end of two-plus hours, Bonella fails to ennoble Saint Laurent’s sexual desperation and artistic aspiration. The “saintliness” concept is unmoving to a guilt-free generation. Numerous vague, symbolic scenes, split-screen montages and a parade of famous actors in small roles don’t help. (Valerie Bruni-Tedeschi gets the best bit as an actress St. Laurent tutors in “lissomness”; looking at Dominque Sanda, as Mama St. Laurent, always feels like art; while unbearably sexy Louis Garrel plays a decked-out decadent yet gets no further than being louche.)

Bonella never finds the empathetic, passionate insight that made Doug McGrath’s film Infamous about Truman Capote one of the best films ever about a gay artist’s humanity — and vastly superior to the cynical, overrated Philip Seymour Hoffman stunt-movie Capote.

Among Bonello’s high-minded conceits, St. Laurent buys a painting that depicts Marcel Proust’s bedroom and admires that it doesn’t overwhelm its subject. Bonello recreates the painting and even has St. Laurent crawl into it. These contrivances and pseudo-Sartrean philosophizing do overwhelm St. Laurent’s artistic, sexual and moral legacy. 

Saint Laurent is in theaters May 8. Watch the U.S. trailer below:

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