A flamboyant but hollow exercise in glitz and pizzazz, Saint Laurent, a biopic covering a formative decade in the life of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel), is a riot of colors, hedonism and nonsense. Told in deliberately elusive, nonchronological style by director Bertrand Bonello and co-writer Thomas Bidegain, the movie presents Laurent as something far from a saint. He’s a diehard party animal who was equally at home in drug-fueled nightclubs as he was behind the runway, where models displayed his latest creations to fawning audiences.
Played by Ulliel (Hannibal Rising) as an opaque, restless creator whose muse was as flitting and evanescent as his attention span, Laurent comes off as a man driven by his craft — in one scene, he turns a drab outfit into an eye-catching ensemble with a few accessories and bits of color, like a scientist working on an experiment. The fractured time line forces the viewer to play catch-up, since the movie never bothers to properly introduce Laurent’s partner and manager, Pierre Berge (Jeremie Renier), who handled the business aspects of Laurent’s empire, or even put the designer’s accomplishments into a historical context, the way Coco Before Chanel did so efficiently.
Bonello wants to have it both ways, using split screens, lush colors and hallucinatory episodes to give the film a tone of feverish surrealism – he wants to show you what that era felt like – while also trying to draw parallels to the ups and downs of Laurent’s career to the tumultuous era of the late 1960s-early 1970s. You can surrender to the picture as a sensory (and sensual) experience — a wild head trip. But at a crazily overlong 2 1/2 hours, the movie becomes an exercise in endurance, the throbbing soundtrack, glittery lights and graphic bouts of every-which-way sex making you long for a quick trip to the nearest monastery for some peace and quiet. Debauchery has rarely been this tiresome.
Saint Laurent is too technically proficient and stylish to disregard outright — like his protagonist, director Bonello was chasing a daring vision — but the film, which includes an ill-conceived, risible flash-forward to an aged Laurent, is ultimately too chaotic and fizzy for its own good. Saint Laurent makes you glad you shop at Target.
Cast: Gaspard Ulliel, Jeremie Renier, Louis Garrel, Helmut Berger, Aymeline Valade, Brady Corbet, Lea Seydoux.
Director: Bertrand Bonello.
Screenwriters: Thomas Bidegain, Bertrand Bonello.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 151 minutes. In English and French with English subtitles. Vulgar language, explicit sex, situations, graphic nudity, drug use, even more explicit sex, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Aventura, South Beach, O Cinema Wynwood; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale.