Before seeing “Saint Laurent,” I had never spent 2 1/2 hours with a person and known or cared so little about him. By the end, my expression mirrored the one the title character almost invariably wears: a look of boredom induced by endless repetition of meaningless events.
Director Bertrand Bonello, who wrote the script with Thomas Bidegain, jumps around in time and locale. We see a terminally bored Saint Laurent, played with dreamy-eyed vagueness by Gaspard Ulliel, sprawl indolently across the beds of gay lovers, along banquettes in clubs where dancers writhe wordlessly to long-forgotten songs, at the desk in the atelier where he became France’s best-known clothing designer 50 years ago. Once in a while, he sits up and scratches on a pad.
The movie follows him mostly from the age of 31 to 38. In the last third, the writers waste a brief visit to his childhood and then intercut scenes of Saint Laurent in the last year of his life at age 71. Helmut Berger mumbles his way through these latter sections, looking nothing like Ulliel but projecting the same indifference toward events.
We never learn why or how Saint-Laurent liberated the female form from design conventions. (He was the first couturier to regularly put pants on women, for one thing.) We never learn the sources of his drive or inspiration. We watch him stumble everywhere in a half-drugged stupor, and he might as well be a rock musician or self-indulgent stockbroker as a designer.
His only apparent passion, apart from a desire always to own a Boston terrier that looks like one who died years ago, is directed toward Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel). He declares Jacques, a sexually promiscuous drug addict, to be his only love. (As proof, Ulliel elevates one eyebrow with excitement.) This annoys Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Renier), Saint Laurent’s business and occasional bedroom partner.
Are we supposed to sympathize with this morose, self-pitying waif as he drifts through life? To giggle at freak-show aristocrats and sycophants who surround him? To think of him as an ordinary guy who never understood his own genius and wanted the same things as you and I? (Assuming you and I want heroin-addicted, amoral sex partners.) I have no idea.
To call the film “unwatchable” is to unfairly insult Josée Deshaies; his lush cinematography delights the eye when the camera roams around Saint Laurent’s workrooms. But “incomprehensible,” “interminable” and “immaterial” all apply.
Fragments from the life of Yves Saint Laurent, the great French clothes designer, leave us wondering what motivated him, why he was a genius and why we should give a hoot.
D- STARS: Gaspard Ulliel, Jérémie Renier, Louis Garrel.
DIRECTOR: Bertrand Bonello.
RUNNING TIME: 150 minutes.
RATING: R (graphic nudity/strong sexual situations, substance abuse throughout, some language).