From the very opening of the Yves Saint Laurent biopic Saint Laurent, director Bertrand Bonello lays out his major thematic conflicts. In the first shot, we look down on an intricately designed floor of a hotel lobby, into which one inconsequential black-clad figure strays. In the second, we see a black-clad figure from behind, sitting on a bed, staring out a window at a foggy Parisian scene. The camera tracks in slowly on him, but does not cut to his face. Already we know that our subject is mysterious and that the movie will play with the notion of revealing his identity to us, but that we will never be able to understand him, possibly because this man moves through a material world of beautifully crafted physical artifice that has, thankfully, supplanted the unnecessary interior world of the artist. As Yves Saint Laurent himself says later in the film, he’s interested in the soul, but he doesn’t believe that it exists in the body, hinting that the soul of certain types of artists must occasionally manifest itself in the aesthetic trifles with which they surround themselves.
With this in mind, Bonello knew that needed to design a biopic that abandoned the normal narrative trajectory of the genre that highlights emotional travails crowned with an epiphany; instead he would have to accentuate plastic surfaces—both the objets d’arts that populate the mise-en-scene as well as the cinematic construction itself—as the manifestations of this absent interiority. Thus, the movie jumps gleefully back and forth in time without any seeming cause-and-effect relationship between different episodes. And I loved all these moments that leapt away from the story itself like explosive parenthetical asides to indulge in the queer ferocity of its subject. Early on at a discotheque, Saint Laurent spies a leather-clad blonde beauty across the room, then the camera hovers beneath her as she comes on to the dance floor to whoosh her hair about for our delectation as John Fogerty belts out “I Put A Spell on You,” but even in these shots, the camera seems just as interested in revealing to us the mirrored ceiling above her that reflects flashes of orange and various shades of blue. Later, Saint Laurent coils his naked flesh on a footstool in an abstract gray space for a photo shoot, his behavior just as mystifying to his friends as it is to us. The film lingers on the purposeless room in his apartment with a giant statue of the Buddha surrounded by a perfectly arranged wall of glittering framed pictures. Bonello punctuates the movie here and there with a recurring dream of snakes slithering through painterly folds of bed sheets, and he breaks the screen now and then into diptychs or triptychs, or into a Piet Mondrian-like arrangement of frames-within-frames. And there are, of course, the clothes, which the characters themselves refer to, without any sense of irony, as Proustian.
My only problem with the film—which I liked very much—was that it didn’t take its own modernist exploration of non-narrative sensuality as far as it could. The story, such as it is, sometimes does fall back on standard biopic tropes. Saint Laurent descends into alcoholism and drug abuse, yet still manages to emerge (as in the standard VH1 Behind the Music structure) unscathed, or even triumphant. Bonello eventually brings in a few scenes of the much older Saint Laurent (ingeniously played by Helmut Berger), alone among his magnificent things, still drinking and still with pills splayed out on the couch, to demonstrate that—unlike the typical biopic pattern—his protagonist has never learned a thing and that maybe that’s for the best. But, by reversing our generic expectations, he merely reinforces the structure that he is trying to critique. That is, by including these scenes of our hero in his final years, Bonello merely rearticulates the limited, binary possibilities of the biopic conclusion—either he has reached some sort of epiphany or he has not—whereas if he had focused instead only on the asynchronous sublimity of his protagonist’s life, we never would have been aware of Bonello’s own limited options.
The film itself hints at its own pent-up desires to go further than it did into a world of pure poetry. The characters name-drop Andy Warhol more than once and make an off-hand reference to Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, as if these influences on Saint Laurent were inspirations for Bonello himself. The movie was yearning to inhabit the same sphere as Chelsea Girls. This alternate twin of the film would have eschewed the picayune scenes of business meetings and fashion-show victories in favor of the visual splendors made possible by the cinematic medium. Just as Warhol’s 30-minutes takes of Nico’s face splashed with colored circles emblematized the sexual dimension of his own distanced, autistic-spectrum aesthetics, I could sense Bonello’s urge to meditate for 30-minutes on Louis Garrel’s half-clothed torso and waxed mustache as the paradigmatic embodiment of Saint Laurent’s exquisite taste and soulless dissolution.