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'Saint Laurent': Cannes Review

Saint Laurent,' Bertrand Bonello, Competition

The Bottom Line

A diffuse and uneven look at the life of one of France's greatest designers.

Venue

Cannes Film Festival (Competition)

Director

Bertrand Bonello

Cast

Gaspard Ulliel, Lea Seydoux, Louis Garrel, Jeremie Renier

The second French biopic about the iconic fashion designer in less than six months stars Lea Seydoux, Louis Garrel, Jeremie Renier and "Hannibal Rising's" Gaspard Ulliel in the title role.

CANNES – The time period covered and the title may be shorter than Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent from five months ago, but French director Bertrand Bonello’s stab at a YSL biopic, simply titled Saint Laurent, runs a whopping 47 minutes longer, though to no apparent benefit.

Though stylistically quite dissimilar — also in part because Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent’s business and former life partner, did not give this project his blessing or grant access to the YSL archives or dresses — there’s little here that might suggest that this classily assembled but narratively diffuse film will do better business than the 1.6 million French admissions the first managed in January, though the cast, which includes Gaspard Ulliel (Hannibal Rising), Lea Seydoux (Blue Is the Warmest Color) and Louis Garrel (The Dreamers), is certainly more high-profile than in Lespert’s version. Sony Pictures Classics bought this item for the U.S., where the Weinsteins have the rights to the rivaling film.

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Saint Laurent opens in 1974, with the designer (Ulliel) checking in to a Paris hotel and agreeing to a phone interview in which he admits he has "disorders" (the French "troubles" is a bit more ambiguous) before backtracking to 1967, when the camera drinks in the minutiae of preparing an haute couture collection. It then introduces two of Saint Laurent’s muses, Betty Catroux (model Aymeline Valade) and Loulou de la Falaise (Seydoux), and in a quick split-screen montage piece combines the 1968 student protests and violent happenings around the world with the designer’s 1968-71 collections being modeled, though it’s unclear exactly what Bonello is trying to suggest. Both women also quickly fade into the background.

Indeed, the screenplay, by the director and France’s star screenwriter, Thomas Bidegain (Rust and Bone, Our Children), seems to generally lack a through line or focus, coasting from party scenes full of drugs and alcohol to work-related drama but rarely managing to get inside the head of the self-destructive character the designer had become by the 1970s. There are a rare few exceptions, such as some nicely staged fever dreams involving snakes and a prolonged kissing scene in which YSL can’t stop smoking, drinking and doing drugs even when he’s making out, suggesting his compulsive side.

Saint Laurent’s partner, Berge (Renier), is never properly introduced, though it becomes clear he handles the boring business side of things in an endless-seeming meeting with a U.S. financier (Brady Corbet), while Jacques de Bascher (Garrel), the other man in the designer’s life, gets an introduction that’s cumbersomely staged, in a heaving discotheque, and so awkwardly played by Garrel that he’s more ridiculous than sexy.

Editor Fabrice Rouaud is sometimes too predictable, like when he cuts from someone worried about Yves’ health to him at the doctor’s, but oftentimes his work feels too choppy, such as when some uniformed men show up at an orgy and are then never seen again, leaving it unclear if they were law enforcers or strippers. Saint Laurent also starts time-jumping again in the last 40 minutes, when Yves also appears as an old man (played by Visconti muse Helmut Berger, though with Ulliel’s badly synched voice), so his final demise can be shown in parallel to the preparations for his triumphant 1976 collection. But the juxtaposition of the timelines isn’t particularly revealing and, somewhat oddly, the big drama of 1976, namely Yves and Pierre’s separation as lovers, goes practically unmentioned here.

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Ulliel is a great physical fit for YSL and he’s mostly convincing, even if his work is a far cry from Pierre Niney’s embodiment of the designer in Lespert’s film. All others essentially have supporting roles, fading in and out of the narrative around the title character.

Francois Ozon’s regular production designer, Katia Wyszkop, does a great job of evoking the period in Paris, though her Marrakech re-creation is unconvincing. Costume designer Anais Romand (Bonello’s House of Tolerance) has the unenviable task of creating costumes that look like Laurent but don’t infringe on his copyright (since Berge didn’t give permission), and acquits herself admirably. Other technical credits are polished.

Production: Mandarin Cinema, EuropaCorp

Cast: Gaspard Ulliel, Jeremie Renier, Lea Seydoux, Louis Garrel, Amira Casar, Aymeline Valade, Helmut Berger, Micha Lescot, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Valerie Donzelli, Jasmine Trinca, Dominique Sanda

Director: Bertrand Bonello

Screenwriters: Bertrand Bonello, Thomas Bidegain

Producers: Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer

Director of photography: Josee Deshaies

Production designer: Katia Wyszkop

Costume designer: Anais Romand

Editor: Fabrice Rouaud

Composer: Bertrand Bonello

Sales: EuropaCorp / Orange Studio

No rating, 151 minutes