“I was 32, Yves was 26. Everything seemed wonderful. Later, you’re less easily satisfied. At first, you create art from nothing. Then, little by little, things start getting complicated,” says Pierre Bergé, the business partner, former lover, and longtime companion of French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. His words play over a scene in Olivier Meyrou’s Celebration, where Bergé stands against a large, decadent window while the blinds get lifted. His right profile gets clearer and clearer as more and more light fill up the screen. From 1998 to 2001, Bergé had given Meyrou unlimited access to film YSL’s final couture collection before the fashion house of Yves Saint Laurent got taken over by Gucci. As the takeover drew closer, Bergé executed some grand swan songs for the fashion house, of which the Yves Saint Laurent parade at the Stade de France before the end of the 1998 France-Brazil Football World Cup was the grandest. Celebration, shot on 16mm, through its movement back and forth in time, and its use of black-and-white and color, captures the build-up to this spectacle and more, with the associated anxiety, ambition, anger, and love.
However, believing that the documentary did not portray him or his relationship with YSL well enough, Bergé did not let Meyrou release the final film. A cease-and-desist from Bergé followed the film’s 2007 Berlin Film Festival screening. Bergé died in 2017 and the film went unreleased until November 2018, when it saw a French release.
When Celebration begins, YSL is already a legend. He is the boss who all the workers fear and cower in front of. They speak in hushed tones and look at him with eyes filled with fear and respect. Models fawn over him and compete for his attention and affection. But the man who Meyrou captures is unsure, restless, and melancholic: a pale shadow of the charismatic mythical fashion designer that the world thinks he is. “He’s like a sleepwalker,” Bergé says, “You mustn’t wake him.” “Trying to film Yves was much like trying to film two different characters at the same time. On the one hand, there is the historical figure, on the other, a man in physical decline, still relentlessly at work,” Meyrou had said in an interview.
The Celebration poster shows YSL wearing a suit and a neon green tie; his head is tilted and he is smoking a cigarette. The entire portrait is blurry and out-of-focus. YSL, the man, is not the focus of Meyrou’s film; Celebration’s focus is on YSL, the legend, and the kingmakers who keep the myth-making machine going: the seamstresses and tailors who rip open a whole coat just because the lining makes a crumpling noise when the model walks; the management staff who orchestrate and curate YSL’s media presence; and, of course, Pierre Bergé, whose parent-like disciplining ensures that YSL, after a whole life of dedicating himself to his art, never quite wakes up from his end-career somnambulism.
In a scene in Celebration, we see YSL’s restless legs shaking behind a close-up of his French bulldog, Moujik. When the camera rises, we see his face in his thick-rimmed glasses lost in thoughts and his mouth twitching as his eyes gaze somewhere beyond the camera. Bergé, eventually gaining prominence in the scene, stands with his right arm on his waist. He stands a little far away but his hawk eyes are fixated on YSL, who keeps going in and out of Meyrou’s focus. Like a master puppeteer, Bergé looks on as YSL watches a pageant rehearsal. It is clear who sets up the YSL stage and who merely makes a symbolic appearance to keep the show going. “Pierre Bergé was a control freak. It can be a quality, but most of the time it is a problem,” Meyrou added in the interview. From the way YSL’s hair looked to what he would say in an award acceptance speech, Bergé’s was the executive opinion that determined how things worked in YSL’s life and in the running of Yves Saint Laurent. When YSL wins the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1999 CFDA Fashion Awards, Bergé walks up to him and asks, “May I share this award with you?” before taking the trophy from YSL’s hands. “Probably I have a part of that,” he says as he walks away. It is easy to discern why Bergé had a problem with Meyrou’s portrayal of him.
Meyrou uses color to shoot the public side of YSL’s life and all the lives that form the throbbing heart of the fashion house. In the most touching scenes, former seamstresses visit their old office at Paris’ 5 Marceau, the building that housed the House of Yves Saint Laurent. As they run from room to room, their faces lit in loving nostalgia, they shout out, “I was here! That’s my big window.” “No, we were here. Things have changed,” says another. When one of them rummages through the YSL collection in a store room, all eventually stored in temperature-controlled vaults, and goes through the many dresses hanging from hangers, she sees a red dress and says, “That was done by Madame Esther. That’s her inlay work.” Later when she finds the iconic YSL green dress with a pink heart, she exclaims, “Here it is! That’s mine!” Shortly before the scene, a very young Laetitia Casta, often called YSL’s last muse, walks up to YSL before a photo-shoot and tells him, “Can we try something? Do you mind if I sit on your lap? Can we try that?” Celebration, with all its bleakness, doesn’t forget to celebrate the immense labour of people, mostly women, whose hands and bodies, built a mythical brand; a brand run by and known for the two very rich men at its helm. It problematizes the idea of ownership in an art form that is essentially collaborative.
Though YSL passed away in 2008, there is a sense of mortality that surrounds all of Meyrou’s film. After his retirement in 2002, YSL lived a reclusive life in Normandy and Morocco and when one watches Celebration, that decision seems like a natural progression. Meyrou shoots an extensive interview that YSL gave to a French journalist; these are the bits he shoots in black-and-white, adding to the enigma of the shadowy, mythical aging king. As a teenager, YSL would design dresses for his mother and sisters and at the end of his career he was still in pursuit of an art that was left to be created; wanting to create a “simple elegance” that was “very pure, very simple, and very luminous.” “But first, it requires an elegance of heart,” he tells the journalist. Meyrou paints us a portrait of a philosophical artist standing at the dusk of his career, a far cry from the jet-setting Parisian designer who frequented Regine's and Studio 54, and was known for his love for alcohol and cocaine.
At the end of the film, he looks on, with his signature neck tilt, almost sulking, as his staff packs up everything at 5 Marceau. Meyrou cuts to a scene where the model Katoucha Niane gets ready for the World Cup parade as she slips into the iconic bird dress from YSL’s Tribute to Georges Braque collection. It had been ten years since she last wore the dress but she slips right in. Everything from 5 Marceau gets packed into a van as Rossini’s “Petite Messe Solennelle” plays on.
We witness a solemn little mass, held in celebration of a simple elegance and the very complex machineries that made it up.
Olivier Meyrou's Celebration runs October 2–15, 2019 at Film Forum in New York, and will be coming to MUBI in the United Kingdom in October.