You may remember that, in Bertrand Bonello's ravishing House of Tolerance, a gaggle of early 1900s prostitutes slow-danced to the anachronistic sounds of the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin". For his unauthorised yet equally exquisite biopic of fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent, the French director follows the same narcoleptic, seductive path of jumbling past tenses together, in a chronology that is neither linear nor exact but, rather, thematic and sensorial.
While Jalil Lespert's earlier fashion plate of an authorized biography, Yves Saint-Laurent, lost itself in the illusions of appearance without ever explaining its subject beyond his commitment to fashion, Mr. Bonello uses that commitment and his exacting perfectionism as the keys that unlock his personality: an insecure, overworked, lustful artist, whose passion to make everything look perfect masked an emptiness at his heart and a desire to find the truth behind the image.
Lost in a constant maze of mirrors, walls, doorways, bedrooms, the many interiors where Mr. Bonello places his Saint Laurent, played by Gaspard Ulliel, are as claustrophobic and as sickly as the Apollonide, the Parisian brothel at the heart of House of Tolerance. The gravitational pull of Saint Laurent's obsessions is almost unbearably entropic, underlined by the flashbacks and flash-forwards that take the film from the 1970s, where most of it takes place, to the final days of his life.
The aged designer is portrayed in these later scenes by the legendary Helmut Berger, suggesting Mr. Bonello is tracing a decadent lineage to 1970s transgressive cinema, espousing both its sense of freedom and of style. The director's approach has always been one of Baudelairian luxe and voluptuousness, and he is not in the market for a traditional narrative biopic. Unlike Mr. Lespert, Mr. Bonello is an aesthete and one that is aiming for a series of impressionistic snapshots of a creative mind at work, reflected in his central conceit: a man whose truth is hidden just below a surface he has made so irresistible that no one will want to look further in, lost in a hall of mirrors of his own creation.
All of it is perfectly encapsulated in the amazing one-take scene where Saint Laurent, seen only in reflection on the dressing room's mirror, coaches one of his clients (a superb cameo from Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) on how to make his design work for her specific body. Maybe Bertrand Bonello is a kind of magician of the screen like Saint Laurent was a magician of the fabric: even at a somewhat sprawling two-and-a-half-hours running time, Saint Laurent is enveloping, seductive, narcotic.
France, Belgium 2014
Cast Gaspard Ulliel, Jérémie Renier, Louis Garrel, Léa Seydoux, Aymeline Valade, Amira Casar, Micha Lescot, Helmut Berger, Valeria Bruna Tedeschi, Jasmine Trinca, Valérie Donzelli, Dominique Sanda
Director Bertrand Bonello; screenwriters Mr. Bonello and Thomas Bidegain; cinematographer Josée Deshaies (colour); composer Mr. Bonello; designer Katia Wyszkop; costumes Anaïs Romand; editor Fabrice Rouaud; producers Éric Altmayer and Nicolas Altmayer; production companies Mandarin Cinéma and Europacorp in co-production with Orange Studio, ARTE France Cinéma, Scope Pictures and Belgacom
Screened November 6th 2014, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor advance press screening)