Saint Laurent biopic is saved by canny casting choices

Gaspard Ulliel conveys the fragility of the tortured Saint Laurent with his long, delicate face. -- PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION
Gaspard Ulliel conveys the fragility of the tortured Saint Laurent with his long, delicate face. -- PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

Biopic about larger-than-life designer is saved by canny casting choices

Review: Drama

SAINT LAURENT (R21)

151 minutes/Opens tomorrow/***

The story: From 1967 to 1976, French designer Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) was at the peak of his career. He and his business and personal partner, Pierre Berge (Jeremie Renier), were building a fashion empire that expanded worldwide. Creatively, Saint Laurent was being inspired by muses such as model Betty Catroux (Aymeline Valade) and the bohemian Loulou de la Falaise (Lea Seydoux). But his life threatens to careen out of control when he fell for Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel), who was also designer Karl Lagerfeld's lover.

Saint Laurent is no conventional, chronological biopic. And that is both its strength and weakness.

On the one hand, it avoids the expected template of its subject overcoming challenges and difficulties to emerge at the top of his game. On the other, it can be a frustrating exercise trying to make sense of Yves Saint Laurent's importance as a designer without much of a context.

Mostly, the movie feels like an impressionistic and languorous take on his downward spiral into a booze and drugs-fuelled bender of sexual hedonism.

The movie flits forwards and backwards in time and there are surrealistic touches that suggest his state of mind, such as when he imagines snakes slithering in his bed.

There is also a humorous sequence which pokes fun at fashion's ludicrousness as we hear models at a photo shoot - one completely nude - voice their inner thoughts. Then there is the pointed juxtaposition of luxe clothing with images of unrest, poverty and agitation.

But it is mostly touch-and-go for director and co-writer Bertrand Bonello (The Pornographer, 2001).

At one point, he casually references the controversial naming of the Opium perfume for the American market and then never returns to it.

The context for Saint Laurent's place in the pantheon of fashion greats only comes at the end, when a newspaper editorial team is trying to put together an obituary for him in 1977. He died in 2008 at the age of 71.

What keeps the movie from falling apart are some canny casting choices.

With his long, delicate face, Ulliel (Hannibal Rising, 2007) conveys the fragility and ego of the tortured artist.

At one point, he mock mourns the fact that he has no competition.

Garrel (The Dreamers, 2003) mixes sexiness and danger as the decadently louche de Bascher.

While Saint Laurent is something of a mixed bag, the competing biopic Yves Saint Laurent by Jalil Lespert has also gotten mixed reviews.

Perhaps, like the perfect sleeve or silhouette, the larger-than-life designer is not an easy subject to pin down.

bchan@sph.com.sg