Early on in Bertrand Bonello's extravagantly imagined portrait of designer Yves Saint Laurent, strict orders come down from the Great One to the stressed-out sewing room, or whatever they call it in that etherized milieu. The tone is hushed but the message is clear: the stitching's all wrong; it must be put right; it must be put right now. In every other respect, Bonello's film has nothing — believe me, nothing — in common with The Devil Wears Prada. But that scene carries echoes of the moment when Meryl Streep rips into Anne Hathaway for failing to grasp the collaborative hard labor that goes into creating blue. In both instances we're left to decide whether haute couture is an art form, whether it should get over itself, or if we should dial for a union rep.
Bonello leaves no room for doubt: He considers Saint Laurent a great artist, if a royally screwed-up one whose moment of triumph in the late '60s — when he quit being a Dior golden boy and emerged an innovator who democratized fashion and freed women to wear tuxes and whatever — also came close to destroying him.
Saint Laurent is an appreciation, but it's neither an act of worship nor a Great Man bio-pic. There's no character arc, no enlightenment or salvation, certainly no room here for rags-to-riches mythologizing.
Born in Algeria, Saint Laurent came from serious money and got his early training with the emphatically old-school Christian Dior. Once he broke free, his radicalism was aesthetic rather than political: An early scene in Saint Laurent splits the screen between the anti-war demonstrations of May '68 and his classically elegant, blithely oblivious collection. By 1976, when his Eastern-influenced "Russian" collection galvanized the fashion world, his models (to say nothing of his friends and lovers) came from all over and wore everything.
Saint Laurent portrays a gilded age in between, when a decadent counterculture simultaneously revolutionizes the designer's aesthetic and tips an already fragile psyche into a pill-popping wreck, unable to walk down a runway without the support of several models. Brilliantly played by Gaspard Ulliel, whose long jaw and enormous square glasses give him the air of a gorgeous, skittish heron, Yves is a mercurial, depressive child, polite to a fault but cruel as needed. He calls his influential mother "Mumsy," dresses impeccably and gets naked with rough trade with equal fervor. An avid celebrity whore, he also pokes fun at his pen-pal, "Endive Warhol," but comes classically suited to present the pioneering prêt-a-porter line of clothing that will open up adventurous apparel to masses of women. And he imperils his stable relationship with his partner and business manager Pierre Berge (a very good Jeremie Renier) through a liaison with Jacques, (Louis Garrel, looking like a hot Salvador Dali), a hedonist who relentlessly guides his lover to rock bottom.
Saint Laurent was never a lone wolf. One very long business transaction between Pierre and the company's American CEO makes clear that the designer had a whole industry militating to turn him from a precocious talent into a lucrative brand. Still, as Bonello tells it, Saint Laurent had no desire to be bothered with the business end of things, so long as it paid for the endless objects of beauty with which he cluttered his houses. "They're just things," he tells Jacques. But those things were everything to him well into his reclusive old age, where he's impishly played by the '70s actor Helmut Berger.
Clocking in at a hefty 150 minutes, Saint Laurent risks its own self-indulgence. It could easily lose a few repeated scenes of a blitzed Laurent raucously frolicking with well-dressed pals in Paris bars or sprawled in bed, frozen in terror as imaginary snakes wind themselves over his naked body. But the movie, lavishly shot on 35 millimeter with a magnificent peacock palette, is never less than a sensual delight. The editing craftily mimics Laurent's style, impeccably cut and full of stealth moves and weird angles that take you by surprise.
Neither hagiographic nor censorious, Saint Laurent is a clear-eyed, often mordantly funny and achingly sad appreciation of Saint Laurent and his milieu, the story of a frail but resilient man who survived a culture that made him a star, all but destroyed him, and helped him to put fashion where it belonged — with the people.