Review: Biopic 'Saint Laurent' wallows in the tawdry

Tom Long
The Detroit News
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Repetitive, repulsive, empty while stuffed with cheap ennui and wholly lacking in either insight or inspiration, "Saint Laurent" is absolutely everything you don't want to see in a biographical film.

This movie is so purposely blank that it begins with the title character describing a particularly bad time in his youth and then proceeds to unspool over two-and-a-half hours while telling absolutely nothing about that time, or much else in the character's background.

Now this may be because French first-graders study the history of the French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent in the same way American kids study George Washington — in which case it's a wonder they're not all in rehab by middle school — but some context (Born rich or poor? Happy family or unhappy family? First love? Traumatic experiences?) might be useful for ignorant foreigners.

But damn context, on to the drugs, booze and gay sex. Lots and lots and lots of drugs, booze and gay sex. And don't forget the cigarettes. This is a French film, after all. Everybody be sure to have a cigarette in hand at all times.

The times under consideration are the late '60s into the '70s, so a certain amount of drugs, booze and any kind of sex isn't farfetched. The problem with "Saint Laurent" is that it holds nothing much beyond those ingredients. The film makes an early and overly obvious comparison to Andy Warhol's sublime emptiness, but 150 minutes of not particularly sublime emptiness without revelation or purpose wears thin.

The basic story is this: Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) is a fabulously successful fashion designer. Don't ask why, or why it matters, just accept it. We see him sketching here and there, and outfits flitter by, but how he came to his success, what impact he had on fashion, that is not explored. After all, it might get in the way of more drugs, booze and gay sex.

Saint Laurent is in a relationship with his manager and guardian angel, Pierre Berge (Jeremie Renier), and he has a couple of beautiful women (Lea Seydoux, Aymeline Valade) who tag along with him to clubs and such as mascots/assistants. Lots of champagne is poured while everybody laughs and smokes cigarettes.

Whilst laughing, drinking champagne and smoking cigarettes at a club one night Saint Laurent meets Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel), a dapper spoiled rich guy who likes to — what else? — take drugs, drink booze and have gay sex. They have an affair and Saint Laurent's life becomes even more depraved.

He gets so messed up he lets his little dog lap up pills scattered about on the floor. The dog promptly dies. Good times.

Anyway, it turns out our hero (?) may be mentally ill. We know this because he sees snakes crawling across his bed. Or maybe those really are snakes in his bed. It's hard to be sure because director-co-writer Bertrand Bonello — perhaps tiring of the tawdry after two hours — starts throwing in surreal scenes in the film's final 30 minutes. At least he keeps the cigarettes coming. Continuity.

Through it all, Yves Saint Laurent remains a pitiful cipher who we learn little about. Ah, but aren't we all ciphers to the oh-so-French existential eye? Nevertheless, we deserve better movies than "Saint Laurent."




Rated R for graphic nudity/strong sexual situations, substance abuse throughout and some language

Running time:

150 minutes

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