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  • An iconic designer gives in to pleasure in this psychedelic biopic of Yves Saint Laurent
  • April 20, 2024

An iconic designer gives in to pleasure in this psychedelic biopic of Yves Saint Laurent

Image Credit: ‘Saint Laurent,’ Sony Pictures Classics

Welcome back to our queer film retrospective, “A Gay Old Time.” In this week’s column, with French auteur Bertrand Bonello’s acclaimed The Beast in select theaters now, we’re revisiting his 2014 fashion biopic Saint Laurent.

Not that there are many comprehensive records or scientific studies in the matter (and if there are, we would love to take a closer look at them), but there has always been a close historical relationship between queerness and prominence in the arts.

The mere act of being considered an outcast or an “other” by the majority of society seems to create a gravitational field that pulls us towards the arts and dive into them in a fuller way.

It’s no coincidence that one of the gnarliest and most obvious links between art and queerness is the pain and suffering that lies underneath them both. The act of existing in the world as a queer person is intrinsically tied to many forms of hurt, large-scale within society or intimate within ourselves. And so much of the world’s great art stems directly from pain; where there’s art, there is the suffering artist—an age-old trope of someone that gives their all for their craft. Someone who is willing to die for it, and is willing to let it destroy them.

For as long as there has been art, there have been tortured queer artists. Those who long and yearn from afar, who indulge in the taboos of society, and that are able to create beauty from the pain (large and small) that is imposed onto us.

This week, we won’t be stepping too far back in time, as we look at Betrand Bonnello’s (whose newest film The Beast, starring Léa Seydoux and George MacKay is currently out in theaters) 2014 biopic Saint Laurent.

The Set-Up

The film is an erotic, sensual, heavily stylized, pill-infused fever dream that follows the titular world-famous French fashion designer through the 1970s, as he struggles to keep up with the day-to-day tasks and demands of his growing empire, conjure up the collection that would cement his name as one off the all-time greats in womenswear, and gives into his deepest impulses with the queer underworld of Paris.

Although the aforementioned archetype of the tortured genius is a favorite trope of many traditional biopics (we don’t have to go looking that much further in time with Bradley Cooper’s Maestro just this past year, for example), Saint Laurent is anything but a traditional film.

Less a straightforward narrative and more a collection of memories, sensations, and carefully curated images, the film is a series of vignettes from the everyday life of Yves Saint Laurent (the late Gaspard Ulliel, who tragically died of a skiing accident in 2022 at just 37), spanning approximately a decade: his sketching sessions at his Paris fashion house, the painstaking selection for the models in his runway shows, the nights he lost in clubs and bars, and his passionate relationships (sexual and otherwise) with the society men of the era.

Bonello’s film is particularly fascinated with the tumultuous relationship the designer had with his business and romantic partner Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Renier), and his affair with an alluring dandy that steals his heart with a single glance across the dance floor, Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel, looking as otherworldly handsome and desirable as few men have attained to be on screen).

Style Over Substance

Image Credit: ‘Saint Laurent,’ Sony Pictures Classics

Clocking at over two and a half hours, and brimming with visual style often at the expense of real thematic substance, the film doesn’t really offer any revelatory insights into Saint Laurent’s creative process, or his personal life for that matter.

We don’t get to understand the origin or reasoning behind his love and obsession for clothes or see the inspiration behind the line that he’s creating. We are unable to be invested in any of his personal relationships as men come and go from his life as easily and as often as he goes in and out of rehab.

As a biopic of Yves Saint Laurent, the man that changed the way women’s clothes are seen and consumed forever, it’s not a particularly successful.

Portrait Of A Tortured Artist

Image Credit: ‘Saint Laurent,’ Sony Pictures Classics

But where it does succeed is as an extensive (though relatively broad) portrait of all the small moments and elements that made up a life overthrown by excess. Rather than asking questions about the man himself, it seems to pose more existential musings: how do you cope with the darkness inside you when your every second is surrounded by beauty: beautiful models in handmade gowns, dogs of rare breeds, and mustachioed men giving into your every whim and desire?

We may not be privy to his exact line of thinking, but  the movie shows how Saint Laurent’s slow but gradual self-destruction (through financial malpractices, pill addiction, and emotionally void sexual encounters) became inseparable from his creative process.

The Legacy Of YSL

Image Credit: ‘Saint Laurent,’ Sony Pictures Classics

The movie also poses the question of what remains after a tortured artist is gone and all that remains is the art. If someone poured all of themselves into something, does that something still manage to keep on living? Or does it fade into obscurity, rendering all that pain worthless?

In a flash forward to an older version of himself, Saint Laurent discusses how fashion has evolved past him and his taste, and how a world that once venerated him now uses his work merely as dated references. In another, a newsroom of journalists workshop his obituary, reducing his life (which we have just been experiencing for two plus hours in intense psychedelic detail) into puns and one-liners.

Man Or Saint?

Saint Laurent provides few answers to the questions it poses, somewhat frustratingly. It uses the figure of Yves Saint Laurent as a stand-in for any given artistic genius where the specificity of the accomplishments end up mattering very little against the toll that the act of creating takes on them.

Maybe it’s because of a flawed script where visuals overtook thematic cohesion. Or maybe that was the intention all along; a statement about how no matter how much artists pour into their work, it will still end up amounting to only a small fraction of who they really were.

Saint Laurent is currently streaming on Starz, and is available for digital rental/purchase via Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTubeTV.

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