Details can completely change the look of a person. This is one of the things director and co-writer Bertrand Bonello gets utterly right with Saint Laurent, his slick and heavily saturated portrait of the eponymous fashion god. A late scene shows an extreme close-up of the face of a model, who, in appeasing Yves Saint Laurent’s (Gaspard Ulliel) newfound desire for thin eyebrows, has each of hers methodically plucked, then brushed with a dark pencil. Swipe on a touch of lip color and bang—a new face stares out at you from the screen. A bit earlier, Saint Laurent subtly shifts a woman’s skepticism as she tries on a suit from his famed Le Smoking collection. He tells his assistants to add a belt and dangling necklaces, instructs the woman to loosen her hair and prop her hands in her pockets, and suddenly her presence transforms into one of breezy empowerment. “I think you’re the only one,” the woman says to the grinning, aloof designer, who responds, “There’s no competition—that’s my misfortune.”
The irony, of course, is that Saint Laurent has competition indeed—in the form of Yves Saint Laurent, another biopic about the designer that opened stateside this summer. Directed by actor turned filmmaker Jalil Lespert, the earlier film—with porcelain-skinned Pierre Niney in the lead—has less formal ambition than the work of Bonello, whose lush and seemingly effortless staging of Saint Laurent’s manicuring is the reason those metamorphoses unfold like magic. Where Lespert is deliberate, Bonello is almost abstractly light-handed, as if, after micro-managing every detail of scene dressing, he’s directing the film from afar, giving it ample breathing space. This approach has its benefits, specifically the evocation of Saint Laurent’s careless whims, which took him to the edge and back on a wave of hedonism liberally depicted by Bonello. But Lespert’s film managed to strike a balance between hard life and inner life, making an inquiry into something beyond Saint Laurent’s appetites (namely, his torrid relationship with business and life partner Pierre Bergé, portrayed here by Jérémie Renier).
Co-starring Léa Seydoux as muse Loulou de la Falaise and Louis Garrell as Jacques de Bascher (Karl Lagerfeld’s prized model and Saint Laurent’s fleeting lover), Bonello’s film boasts the glitzier cast, which makes a certain sense since Saint Laurent is a movie of dramatic poses, putting baubles and international stars on lingering, lavish display. At one point, Jacques sprawls himself on a bed as if he fell from one cloud and landed on another, and viewers might laugh at the way Bonello luxuriates in the image if he didn’t also tease out Garrell’s best come-hither glare. Elsewhere, Bonello’s camera—or, more specifically, DP Josée Deshaies’s—swoons over the cache of material items Saint Laurent treasures until old age (the movie’s chronology is an exercise in over-finessed mind-fuckery), not to mention Jacques’s pill-strewn orgies, shown from above, just so, as if we’re peeking into a debauched dollhouse.
But no matter what Bonello’s artful indulgences may reflect about his subject, all of this becomes terribly tiresome and redundant, for only so many times can we watch Ulliel inhale downers and cigarette smoke until the numbness grows palpable. As for the clothes, despite the considerable efforts of costume designer Anaïs Romand, who had to recreate every vintage YSL look (unlike Yves Saint Laurent, this film lacked the backing of the fashion house and the still-active Bergé), they come off as afterthoughts in a film about a haute couture genius. It’s tempting to love that aspect merely as an act of radical transgression, but not when the garments are finally showcased after the film’s welcome has been worn to threads. Like its “rival” film (which, by and large, has been poorly received by comparison), Saint Laurent caps off with the designer’s 1976 Opera Ballets Russes collection, a comeback runway show steeped in pageantry—and introduced as we inch toward the movie’s 150-minute finish line. Amid all the strutting and turning, no matter how much Bonello varies his split screens, triptychs, and geometric screen divisions (all clearly meant to evoke Saint Laurent’s love for Mondrian), he forgets that one of the most fashionable virtues is knowing when to leave.