Review: 'Saint Laurent'

"I have fought the fight for elegance."

So says Gaspard Ulliel's Yves Saint Laurent in Bertrand Bonello's "Saint Laurent," an emotionally restrained yet formally lavish biopic that debuted at the Cannes Film Festival. Like nearly all films in this difficult genre, it's a story about a guy who did some things that got some attention and then he eventually died, the end.

But Bonello's decision to show rather than tell keeps the audience on its toes, sifting through miles of elaborate fabric, looking for patterns. Much like Scorsese's "The Aviator," the movie is easy eye candy, but the few peeks behind its curtain reveal something deeper for those willing to work for it.

Though the timeline is a little fractured, we first meet Saint Laurent in the late 1960s, when he is already a fashion designer of great renown. A few stray lines of dialogue reveal some important facts. He grew up frail, as a Pied-Noir - the sizable French community in Algeria that vanished with the end of colonialism.

A nod to Marcel Proust reminds us that Saint Laurent is a man whose "temps perdu" include a home to which he literally can not return. Perhaps this is part of his ceaseless drive and pursuit of precision. Though he makes humble references to his craft (he sees himself as a failed painter: "no Matisse") his House of Couture runs like a medical laboratory, white coat technicians and all.

The first half of this lengthy 150 minute picture shows him shaping his world to peak form and then, of course, letting it nearly collapse. Behind any great man there is, naturally, a team. Foremost, his business manager and life partner Pierre Berge (Jeremie Renier). As innovative Yves is with sketching lapels, so is Pierre with international licensing contacts. Bonello gives us one marathon boardroom scene that is unlike the typical Sorkin-esque meetings we're used to. Its realism, and slightly annoying pauses for translations, is strangely thrilling in its mundanity.

Saint Laurent also retains twin muses: model Betty Catroux (Aymeline Valade); and accessories sorceress Loulou De La Falaise (Lea Seydoux). Frankly, this movie doesn't give either woman all that much to do other than to look absolutely stunning, but keep your eyes open for GIFs of Valade dancing with abandon to "I Put A Spell On You" to conquer the Internet in time.

Saint Laurent's troubles come when he meets and falls in love with Jacques de Bascher de Beaumarchais, whose name was fake but whose personality was big enough to make it fit. Jacques introduced Yves to a seedier side of gay Paris in the early 1970s, and the drugs and drink that accompanied it. Yves gets so wasted he accidentally kills his dog. Still, he's able to rally and, remembering the North African influence of his childhood, he presents his 1976 show as his greatest triumph.

These plot distillations may make "Saint Laurent" seem like Wikipedia-as-film, but a movie like this has to rely upon its style. Luckily, Bonello has a surplus. It goes without saying the costumes are spectacular. Occasionally they struck me as a little over the top (in one scene Ulliel's bow-tie made him look like Johnny Depp in "Alice in Wonderland") but some quick Google research proves accuracy. Those were some times.

Bonello also knows we can never have too many scenes of half-naked beautiful people spaced out in slo-mo to Giorgio Morodor-like music. He also makes good use of split-screens, a nod to one of Saint Laurent's key influences, Piet Mondrian.

There are, alas, a few on-the-nose references to other artists and celebrities (Saint Laurent was apparently pen pals with Warhol) but what is this movie going to be if not an impressive party? What may be frustrating to some (but refreshing to others) how the movie never looks you in the eye to say "THIS is what Saint Laurent is trying to accomplish."

This reserve may lessen the character's sympathetic impact, but to be so blunt about things really wouldn't be so stylish, now, would it?