A look at the life of the late French fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel), from 1965 to 1976. 

3.5

Even if your idea of fashion is making certain you're not naked when you step out the door, you've almost certainly heard of a certain Saint Laurent.  You're probably less familiar with his full name, which would have taken up way more space on a store's facade: Yves Henri Donat Mathieu Saint-Laurent. (Finding enough space inside a garment for a label that long would also be a challenge.)

His is not a rags to riches story—it's a riches to riches tale about an impossibly sensitive young man who parlayed his delicate sensibilities into a fashion empire with the help of what we would now call his husband, Pierre Bergé. Yves Saint Laurent died in 2008. Mr. Bergé, who gave his blessing to another film about the seminal designer (Yves Saint Laurent, directed by Jalil Lespert), is still going very strong.

Betrand Bonello's approach to a crucial decade from 1967 to 1976 is 47 minutes longer than the ‘rival’ (but very well made) film, which hit French theaters in January. Unauthorised or not, in mid-September Bonello's Saint Laurent was chosen to represent France in the Best Foreign Language Picture category at the Oscars.

Gaspard Ulliel usually traffics in hunky masculinity yet he seems to have internalised Saint Laurent's affected mannerisms and odd speech patterns. It's hard to believe that not so long ago it was considered career suicide for an actor to play an identifiably homosexual character. Here we have three notorious heterosexuals—Gaspard Ulliel, Jérémie Rénier and Louis Garrel—practically tripping over each other to play famous gay men. (Michael Douglas and Matt Damon set the bar high in Steven Soderbergh's terrific Behind the Candelabra about real-life entertainer and flamboyant clothes horse Liberace.)

Garrel, as Yves' bad boy lover Jacques de Bascher, looks as if he should be tying women to railroad tracks in silent movies when he's not cruising in the bushes near the Louvre or leering at the sex-friendly furnishings in his swinging aristocrat's bachelor pad. A scene set there involving intense levels of drug consumption and Yves' beloved pet dog is memorably disturbing in its repurcussions. (Far be it from me to stoop to puns about ‘high’ fashion.)

Amira Casar is excellent as Madame Munoz, who started out with YSL when he was barely out of his teens and who ran a tight, polite ship in order to translate her boss' sketches into perfect haute couture garments.

The film was shot on 35mm because, as Bonello puts it, "I insisted on it. The textures are difficult to capture and 35mm offers a softness and richness that digital doesn't have. And it doesn't cost that much more."  Indeed, the images do a fine job of conveying the exacting, labor-intensive, time-consuming work that goes into stitching exquiste fabrics to order. The 100 seamstresses who devoted four months to making the costumes for the film (Bergé would not permit this production to use any authentic YSL designs let alone the genuine garments, which did appear to excellent effect in Yves Saint Laurent) definitely deserve a round of applause.

The pressure to create once you're the fulcrum of a fashion empire is enormous: four collections a year. Imagine a film director who had to come up with four movies a year and get them made to a merciless schedule year in and year out without repeating himself.

The world of fashion as it's presented to the public in magazine spreads and on runways seems glamorous but it's difficult to be at all jealous of what Mr. Saint Laurent went through or the life a clothing designer must lead. Inner voices ordered Yves to Create! Innovate! Dazzle! and Excell! the way one commands a dog to Sit! Fetch! Roll over! Haute couture seems much like working in a coal mine, except that the end result can be ironed or sent to the dry cleaners.

High-strung Yves was protected by down-to-earth Pierre. While he made an indelible mark on women's fashion at a pivotal time of societal transition (girdles one minute, transparent blouses the next), it's sobering to consider that the emotionally fragile creator at the heart of his eponymous fashion house might not have survived in the current era of relentless social media.

The film features an 8-minute scene during which Bergé plays hardball with two American investors. The fate of the fashion house hangs in the balance. Some people find this sequence dull and overlong but it's a sharp portrait of how—much like filmmaking—high fashion is both an art and an industry. (As an interesting aside, the woman who plays Bergé's interpreter is not a professional actress. She was working as a translator for Cannes Int'l Critics Week where Bonello spotted her.)

In Lespert's Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Niney and Guillaume Gallienne, both members of the permanent troupe at the Comedie Francaise, were incredibly good as Yves and Pierre. The acting is very good in Bonello's film, too, although I prefer Gallienne's performance as Bergé to Jérémie Rénier's. Rénier gave the performace of a lifetime as popular French singer-songwriter Claude François in 2012's Cloclo but seems under-used here. Ulliel lost weight for the part: "The idea was to arrive on set in a body not my own."

The real Bergé may have given his official blessing to the other film, including the right to use authentic garments from the archives. (Although they have aged ever so gracefully, the vintage dresses could not be worn for more than an hour or two under shooting conditions.) But plenty of unflattering material (the kind we lean in to hear about, not the kind you measure by the yard) has made it into both versions.

"We don't reveal a single secret," says Bonello. "Everything is a matter of public record. I decided not to take the angle of 'Where does creativity come from?' but rather 'What does it cost?'"

It's said that one must suffer to be beautiful. Thrilling in places, self-indulgent in others, Saint Laurent strongly suggests that one must suffer to make others beautiful.

Saint Laurent

Airs Thursday 2 January, 9:30PM on SBS World Movies (now streaming at SBS On Demand)

MA15+
France, 2014
Genre: Biography, Drama
Language: French
Director: Bertrand Bonello
Starring: Gaspard Ulliel, Léa Seydoux, Jérémie Renier, Louis Garrel, Brady Corbet
What's it about?
A look at the life of the late French fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent (Ulliel), from 1965 to 1976 when the famed fashion designer was at the peak of his career. From acclaimed director Bertrand Bonello (Nocturama, House of Pleasure, Tiresia)