'Saint Laurent' is fashionably late

Latest take on designer falls flat on storytelling

Tuesday June 2, 2015 04:00 am EDT

"The story that has never been told before" is the advertising tagline for the new film Saint Laurent, but it's understandable if you have a bit of déjà vu. Saint Laurent tells pretty much the same story as last year's similarly titled but vastly superior Yves Saint Laurent. Both are French biopics depicting the life of the eponymous designer, both focusing on his unprecedented success, turbulent personal life, and struggles with madness and addiction.

The tagline is somewhat misleading in another sense as well: the liberal use of the word "story." Saint Laurent is more a collection of stylish, loosely interconnected scenes than an actual story in the strictest sense. We drift from thing to thing, and the narrative (such as it is) jumps back and forth in time. It's a passable strategy for a film to have — it certainly sets Saint Laurent apart from the earlier film's more traditional structure — but the problem is we never develop much of an attachment or interest in the people the film is showing us. The new film seeks to expand the cast of characters, showing us more of Saint Laurent's muses, such as the rebellious Loulou de la Falaise and party girl Betty Catroux. There's also his lover Jacques de Bascher and several of the women from Saint Laurent's atelier and other members of his inner circle.

The problem is the film often ends up feeling frustratingly diffuse, and director Bertrand Bonello inexplicably lingers on prosaic scenes that reveal little. We see far too many noisy bars and discos where Saint Laurent parties and takes drugs (we get it) and Catroux dances (it doesn't help that Aymeline Valade, the actress playing her, is a wretched dancer). There's a scene in which workmen try to fit an enormous photo of Saint Laurent into a van to take it to a party at the Louvre. (Spoiler alert: It doesn't fit.) There's ample time to buy popcorn and practically finish it during a scene in which business is discussed between the house of Saint Laurent and American investors at a board meeting, with each dull, plodding pronouncement translated between French and English by a dowdy translator who speaks in an unvaried monotone. Most deplorable of all is the use of split screen (has this ever worked in a movie?), execrably deployed throughout but at its most tasteless in a montage of Saint Laurent's developing style, with one side of the screen showing his fashions through the early '70s and the other showing scenes of the violence and political turbulence of the era.

In the earlier film, lead actor Pierre Niney gave us a complicated Saint Laurent — charming, driven, needy, and determined to create despite all his personal baggage — but in the later film, the usually watchable Gaspard Ulliel gives us a Saint Laurent so full of gravitas he's a bit of a bore, affectedly mincing but speaking in a solemn whisper, so inwardly focused he's a cypher. In the end, you should avoid Saint Laurent in the cinema, and if you're ever in the mood to rent a movie about Yves Saint Laurent from Netflix, make sure you've picked the right one, the one that tells the story well. (1 out of 5 stars)

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