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“Saint Laurent”, the monster you live with

 
If only by considering its canonizing title, Saint Laurent, Bertrand Bonello’s new film establishes a connection with the name of its main character which gets declined in several configurations, to the point where it squarely becomes a plot point.
 

Saint Laurent develops many motifs which ponder the notion of identity, shown as always elusive through omnipresent mirrors (the obsession of one’s self and the appearance one reflects), and whose imperious necessity is shown as something to control, or regain control of, as if one’s life depended on it (cf. the need to sleep in the prologue of the film). Indeed several scenes focus on the efforts of Pierre Bergé (Jérémy Rénier) to acquire the brand “Yves Saint Laurent” from its shareholders and to impose its initials YSL as a world-renown symbol, when he doesn’t try to seize it from his partner (played by an impressive Gaspard Ulliel) as his moral health declines. Thus, Bergé’s lapsus at the end of the scenes with the shareholders (“my name”) reveals the growing ascendancy he has over his protege, starting as a mere silent and admirative observer in the beginning to slowly but surely taking on a more active role of puppeteer (“Yves, move your arm in order to prove that you’re alive!”), and ultimately the one of unavoidable but unshakeable tyrant (he puts the couturier under locks, imposes a creative rhythm on him… his abrupt and unequivocal “no” to Saint Laurent’s question on derision). 

Despite a second part which lingers a bit too much over the harmful but predictable effects of the torrid and toxic affair between Saint Laurent and Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel), the film actually strives to turn its titular character into an icon who is constantly brought down to earth by the principle of reality. This manifests as early as the first scene in the couturier’s studio, in which Bertrand Bonello shows the mathematical precision which his assistants take the models’ measures with, or the listing of the numerous delivery dates by his secretary, while he himself thinks rather of his dessert (“a chocolate mousse?”) but above all, already, of escaping (through classical music). Later in the film, through seemingly mundane conversations such as the one with his mother about replacing a broken light bulb, or during rude awakenings on construction sites, or when one judges a dress in the making (“This is what Joan Crawford would look like if she dressed commonly”), that principle of reality continously hammers its crushing necessity onto Saint Laurent, like in an hilarious scene where a portrait of the artist, as illustrious as he may be, can never enter a moving van which is just a few centimeters short.

 

The death of his dog Moujik, in particular, reinforces even more the contrast between Saint Laurent’s yearnings for sublime and the actual sordid of his situation. Abruptly interrupting the ethereal music the two lovers kiss on, the sound of their clothes rubbing on the leather sofa destroys any and all illusions of glamour. Interestingly, the next scene, in when the dogs swallows the drug pills spilled on the floor, causes a collective movement of disgust and pity to all the spectators who, until then, were reduced to observe a microcosm obsessed with how it looks, and of which Saint Laurent himself isn’t dupe (“Isn’t all that derisory?”). On that note, the split-screen sequence which puts into perspective the big social upheavals of the 1960s and the couturier’s fashion shows is absolutely marvelous. Anyway, the audience’s emotion to the dog’s death is as strong as it is sudden, and all the more surprising that it rests upon a non-human character. In fact, the film particularly in its second part plays with the animality of the characters (“We are beasts”) and presents several representations of dogs and snakes, as if the characters were rising above their human condition, or at least were desperately trying to do so (“I created a monster and now I have to live with it”). Fortunately, it’s not all grim, like in the frantic and funny search for a replacement Moujik!

As gossip-provoking scandals and immortal fashion shows transform his fame into myth, Saint Laurent himself seems to want to disappear into his own creation. Therefore, the upsurge of flash-forward scenes in the third part of the film both serves as a narration-booster following the debatable spiral of debauchery of the second part, but more so it introduces the final stage of self-surpassing that the character so aspires to (“I like soulless bodies, because the soul is elsewhere”). And the apartment-shrine he fashions with as much meticulousness as he does his dresses puts on a par with the art objects, movie stars’ pictures and religious icons he bulimicly collects, even though he says he doesn’t want to be “put into a museum”. This cristallisation of the genious seen as an entity separated from his body of work finds its logical apex towards the end of the movie with the superb fashion show sequence where Saint Laurent becomes the hidden voyeur of his own creations, which he observes from backstage as if he were admiring the “monster” with whom, for a moment only, he finally finds a way to live with.

 

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