The glut of films about ’60s and ’70s fashion raises many questions. How is it that those whose creations are evanescent can capture the spirit of an age? And why do so many French actors look like Yves Saint Laurent? Almost as many as there are Anglophone actors who, with a quick application of a wig, can channel Andy Warhol.
Add to the latter list Willem Dafoe, who appears in a cameo of sorts as Warhol’s voice in Bertrand Bonello’s mesmerizing, achingly beautiful dream of the designer’s life, “Saint Laurent.” Bonello’s Saint Laurent, meanwhile, played by Gaspard Ulliel (one of 20 actors considered), is more transfiguration than performance, eclipsing not only Pierre Niney, in Jalil Lespert’s “Yves Saint Laurent” (2014), but also Saint Laurent himself, in the 2010 Pierre Thoretton documentary “L’amour fou.” Not only does Ulliel physically resemble the late designer (he died in 2008) but he distills the genius’s sybaritic desperation and tragic, creative exhilaration into one wordless, aquiline, bespectacled look.
The achievement, though, is mostly Bonello’s. Unlike the other films, his version isn’t from the point of view of Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Renier), Saint Laurent’s lover, business partner, handler, and occasional nursemaid. Here Bergé’s role is limited to a shadowy presence, the fixer who waits at the margins to step in when things get out of control. Instead Bonello takes on the point of view of Saint Laurent himself, exposing a visionary world seen from within that is as strange and wonderful as that of a magnificently stitched garment turned inside out.
Bonello passes on such conventions as a linear chronology for the kaleidoscope of impressions and memories that is life as experienced by most people, but more so for someone as acutely perceptive, effusively creative, and multiply addicted as his subject. Though the narrative covers primarily Saint Laurent’s creative peak, from 1967 to 1976, it begins in medias res, in 1974, with a despondent Saint Laurent confessing his traumatic childhood over the phone to a reporter in an interview quickly quashed by Bergé. Then it is 1967, and Saint Laurent is found filthy and unconscious in a vacant lot. Both scenes recur, images of the abyss from which the beauty springs and to which it returns, and around which swirl the parties, the decadence, the triumphant shows, the Swann-like obsession with a useless man, the transformation of the soul into a brand worth millions.
Only once does Bonello seem to slip into glibness — a sequence in which he splits the screen and chronicles the passing years, with one showing the debut of a legendary line, the other filled with archival images of historical events. The implication is that Saint Laurent with his superficial art is oblivious to the real world. Or maybe he creates the surfaces which the real world needs to veil itself.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.