There is plenty to appreciate about director Bertrand Bonello’s flamboyant, kaleidoscopic fever dream of a biopic of Yves Saint Laurent (played by lookalike Gaspard Ulliel). It’s a mesmerizing depiction of the esteemed French designer’s agonized grasp for all-consuming beauty and creative genius, and it plays out like a tragic love story. The tortured-artist theme may not be fresh, but there is something compelling about Bonello’s ultra-vivid style. Manicured models, swaths of rich textiles and the glittery dust of disco nights are a visual feast of materialistic excess and great fashion.
But for history buffs, or anyone seeking a cradle-to-grave education, the narrative lacks steam. The film eschews a chronological depiction of the life and times of Saint Laurent, narrowing its focus to the designer’s peak years of the ’60s and ’70s. The narrative structure is a muddled pastiche of momentous life events that shape the designer’s creative arc. It notably downplays Saint Laurent’s childhood, his early fashion career (his Christian Dior apprenticeship is only vaguely mentioned) and, most surprisingly, his well-documented relationship with business partner and lover Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Renier).
Instead, the film slogs through scenes of business engagements—workshop design sessions and brand-extension tête-à-têtes—before dropping us into the detached sexual escapism of Parisian discotheques. Jacques de Bascher (a devastatingly charming Louis Garrel) comes to the fore in this era of Saint Laurent’s life, offering lusty sex and pills to soothe and distract. These decadent scenes seem to drag on forever, as if the party will never stop. The end of the film strives to tie up loose ends, cutting between an elderly Saint Laurent (Helmut Berger) and the younger version in an attempt to anchor them in an aging man’s ruminations and hallucinations.
Despite its tiresome reveries, the film hits its stride in its commitment to juxtaposition. Where there is superficiality, there is seduction, and where there is beauty, there is pain. Bonello’s treatment of the subject and the narrative structure might seem tedious and arbitrary, but he offers a complex view of Saint Laurent, as a man and a designer, balanced delicately between genius, contentment and devastating emptiness. Perhaps Bonello’s true desire was not to give a history lesson, but show us the mood of an era—and the inner workings of a man driven by pleasure and pain.