When watching a film biopic, there are certain expectations of what information will be given to its viewers; A back-story, a rise, a fall, and often redemption form a narrative template that usually structures the cinematic story. This is the tried and true method that has become the norm of this Hollywood subgenre. Saint Laurent’s director, co-writer and musical score composer, Bertrand Bonello decides to throw away these requirements by turning a macro-story of a legendary man’s life into a tighter focused tale encompassing a window of 10 years in Yves Saint Laurent’s spectacular existence (with the exception of a few brief scenes that take place outside of this time frame).
This chronic boundary tightens focus on the period accredited with the beginning signs of the transformation of Yves Saint Laurent from an artist to a brand. And what a period that was, the film is coated in beautiful colors, people, and, of course, its fair amount of 1970s drug euphoria. The dance clubs, the parties, and the fashion are all captured in a vibrant Technicolor splendor and with the use of 35 mm film by cinematographer Joseé Deshaies, the cathartic effect of the textures and contours dominate the screen. There is absolutely no doubt that this film’s aesthetic maintains a homeostatic beauty throughout; something that is crucial in connecting the audience to its protagonist.
While it may not adhere to more standard Hollywood practices that may jar some audiences, it’s an art film about fashion… so it really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
This beauty does not contain itself to simple visuals but successfully bleeds into the relationship between Yves, his lover and his love for the time in which he has found himself. Gracefully executed by Gaspard Ulliel, Yves is shaped by his setting, just as much as he influences it, and his relationship with Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel) bares a strong impression of his existence. Bonello has commented that the character of Jacques de Bascher is in fact a manifestation of the opiate, live-hard philosophy of the 1970s. On the surface, he could in fact be replaced, but instead holds his importance in being that embodiment of Yves’s destruction. It makes so much sense, that with this in mind, Bonello creates such a passionate relationship between the genius and his destruction.
The ornate and fantastic atmosphere surrounding Yves is in sharp contrast to its central character. Gaspard Ulliel truly nails a quiet subtlety in his portrayal of genius without coming off as standoffish. He carries himself with a sort of bold fragility in that he can demand the attention of an entire room but moves as if being carried by a light breeze that came in with him. In his voice, there is a soft reed-like nature while still carrying a sense of carefully selected deliberation that is very much associated with the real-life Yves Saint Laurent.
The subtlety with precision is also reflected in Bonello’s choices for establishing certain aspects of Yves’ character on a larger scale. As mentioned before, Yves is not given a back-story on-screen because the film drops the audience into his already thriving career. To portray his character’s fame and pronounced greatness, Bonello creates a fictitious letter from Andy Warhol that explains that he and Yves are two of the last legends in pop culture. With out any stress, and probably in the least expensive way possible, a background has been given and viewers accept it.
In a similar fashion, Bonello conveys in a single scene of Yves giving a makeover to Mme Duzer (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), Yves Saint Laurent’s influence on women in society. Bonello explains, “A man manipulates a woman who is suddenly transformed before our eyes. Valeria is brilliant in that scene. In her performance, she becomes 15 years younger in three minutes.” After being touched by the Midas hand of fashion, the tired woman has become empowered and confident, acting as a symbol for Yves larger global effect.
Bonello’s Saint Laurent is a beautiful film on multiple levels. It tells a story of man’s transformation with sophistication and style that should be the main expectation of the story of Yves Saint Laurent. While it may not adhere to more standard Hollywood practices that may jar some audiences, it’s an art film about fashion… so it really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
Saint Laurent is in theaters this Friday, May 8th.