Review: ‘Saint Laurent’ is stylish and enthralling

9-saint-laurent.w529.h352.2x

I gave 3 ½ stars to the better of the two Yves Saint Laurent biopics, Bertrand Bonello’s “Saint Laurent.”

One shot in the Yves Saint Laurent biopic “Saint Laurent” captures its title character more than any other. It is the late 1960s, and the famed designer stands alone in his store on a busy Paris street. He is imprisoned by his creative successes, as well as his personal failures. Both become even stronger throughout the film.

The image captures the fragility of an emotionally damaged individual whose revolutionary work changed women’s fashion forever. It is stylish and captivating, like the film itself.

Controversial director Bertrand Bonello’s film is unquestionably compelling, but also flawed. It is long – two and a half hours – rather humorless and centered on a main character who is not particularly likable, but certainly a zeitgeist-altering genius.

In a sign of just how vast a shadow he still casts, “Saint Laurent” is his second biopic in the last two years. The first, titled “Yves Saint Laurent,” is streaming on Netflix, and watching the two makes for a fascinating comparison.

“Yves Saint Laurent” earned the support of the late designer’s partner, Pierre Bergé, and utilized some of his actual designs. It is also thoroughly rote and crushingly dull, the type of “A to B to C” biopic that is sure to please the sycophants.

Bonello’s “Saint Laurent,” on the other hand, is the looser, unauthorized version that seems to truly capture who Saint Laurent was, and why we still care. It is the epitome of the warts-and-all biography, devoting much of its running time to the title character’s hedonistic, sex-and-drugs-fueled artistic peak.

It’s no wonder Bergé found the 2014 effort more to his liking, though in both versions, Bergé is the central figure in his life and career. (He is played in “Saint Laurent” by Jérémie Renier.)

“Saint Laurent” stars Gaspard Ulliel, who is perhaps best known stateside as the star of “Hannibal Rising.” His performance here is astounding. He disappears into the role and captures the designer’s charisma and intelligence.

Bonello is boldly uninterested in telling Saint Laurent’s story in chronological order. Therefore, as the film begins he already is a fashion world star.

It’s a domain of unhinged creativity, model-packed parties and elaborate decadence, and Bonello stages it all as an explosion of color, sound and sex. It also is an insular existence – Saint Laurent’s mother gently chastises him for not knowing how to change a lightbulb – and Bonello smartly captures this feel via a split-screen montage with models sporting Saint Laurent’s designs on one side, and archival footage of the increasingly combustible outside world (Vietnam, 1968 Paris, etc.) on the other.

Despite the clever directing of Bonello and the stunning work of Ulliel and Renier, things start to become a bit tiresome as we approach the two-hour mark, and the designer is at his lowest mental point.

However, Bonello then makes a wonderfully creative, unexpected move: He drops the aged, near-death Saint Laurent, now played by the actor Helmut Berger, into the story.

From this moment on, even as the designer mounts a successful comeback show, we continually cut to a man who seems drained of the verve of his prior decades. He putters around his decadent home, feeding the latest incarnation of his beloved dog, looking at magazines, and waiting for … something.

It’s a sad ending for a genius, one who finished life as nothing more than an eccentric figurehead. It’s also brilliant, and makes for the film’s most absorbing stretch.

“Saint Laurent” is one of the more enthralling biopics about a creative mastermind in years. At its best moments, it is a downright addictive experience, fitting for the story of a man whose most well-known fragrance was called “Opium.”

What the film has in abundance is imagination. And despite its somber portrayal of Yves Saint Laurent’s personal complexities, I think the man himself would have found the dreamlike imagery on screen to be utterly intoxicating.

Recommended new books on filmmaking: My latest Film Stage feature

recommended_books_may_2015-620x340

My latest Film Stage books piece features some new (and newish) reading options looking at Mad Max: Fury Road, Robert Altman, Grand Budapest Hotel, and more.

If your idea of beach reading is Nicholas Sparks or Danielle Steel, click away. (And reconsider your life choices.) However, if you plan to work on your tan while paging through weighty hardcover tomes about Robert Altman, Boyhood, and Grand Budapest Hotel, read on. We start—as one should—with George Miller’s fast-and-Furiosa masterpiece, Mad Max: Fury Road.

The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road by Abbie Bernstein (Titan Books)

Many thoughts run through one’s head while watching Fury Road—Could George Miller’s film make the rest of this summer’s blockbusters look any weaker in the knees? Can fans stop worrying about the chronology? Why wasn’t late Howard Stern Show fan favorite Eric the Actor cast as the little person who looks through the telescope?—but the most pressing is likely, “How did they do that?!” The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road has some answers. From storyboards and sketches to insightful production photos, the book is an extravaganza of ugly-beautiful details. Some of it is haunting, including a still of a young “War Boy” in the making gazing in the distance and an extreme close-up of a disturbingly skeevy Nicholas Hoult. Some is surprising, including the concept that the “Wives’ quarters” are “filled with the world’s last remaining books.” All of it, without question, makes a rich film seem even richer. Abbie Bernstein’s book is a brisk, fascinating read, and a must-have for the Rockatansky completist.

The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel by Matt Zoller Seitz (Abrams)

Matt Zoller Seitz’s dazzling, marvelously designed 2013 book The Wes Anderson Collection was one of the finest film-related texts of recent years, but had one failing: Timing meant that it could not include 2014’s Grand Budapest Hotel. That problem is now solved. The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel is a glorious companion, featuring more than 250 pages of interviews (with Anderson, Ralph Fiennes, Robert Yeoman, and others), essays (from the likes of David Bordwell and Ali Arikan), and photos, artwork, and much more. There are even excerpts from the works of Stefan Zweig. Above all else, there are illuminating thoughts like this one, from Zoller Seitz’s preface: “[W]ith each successive viewing of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a funny, really not­-so-funny thing happens: We realize that all these acts of self-reinvention and self-determination will nonetheless be trampled by the greedy and powerful, then ground up in the tank treads of history.”

Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt (Scribner)

Comedian-actor-Twitter superstar Patton Oswalt is a cinephile extraordinaire, and Silver Screen Fiend—subtitled Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film—is one of the finest chronicles of movie love and its life-altering impact in some time. As the memoir progresses, Oswalt’s stand-up career slowly flourishes, but it’s the film talk that makes Fiend so memorable. His Day the Clown Cried anecdote alone makes this an essential read, as done his heartbreak after seeing The Phantom Menace. Oswalt’s thoughts on a second viewing of the Star Wars prequel are wonderfully well-reasoned: “I guess I’m hoping for some sort of redemptive miracle, or that maybe I was wrong in my initial assessment. Also, there are parts of it I like. It’s sheer uncut nostalgia. … But it still sucks.”

Star Wars Epic Yarns: A New HopeThe Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi by Jack and Holman Wang (Chronicle Books)

The Star Wars Epic Yarns trio is summarized nicely on the back of each book: “Twelve handcrafted felt scenes + twelve words = one epic microsaga!” That about sums it up. While the twelve words are a bit banal for readers over, say, 6 (“trouble,” “hurt,” “boom!”), the scenes are stunningly detailed. Yoda, in particular, is adorable, and the key moments from A New HopeThe Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi are all here. My Star Wars-obsessed 4-year-old finds the three books delightful, and so do I.

Altman by Kathryn Reed Altman and Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan (Abrams)

The career of Robert Altman demanded a colorful, photo-heavy coffee-table book like Altman. This visual biography is co-authored by the late director’s widow, Kathryn Reed Altman, and film critic Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan. They have created a wildly entertaining summary of the man’s career and life, including scores of interviews (collaborators represented include Lily Tomlin, Jules Feiffer, and Julian Fellowes) and unique insight into the peaks and valleys of his life. The lows of the 1980s are especially interesting, but readers will be most moved by the photos and memories of his final days. The last photo of husband and wife, taken at home shortly before his passing in 2006, is gloriously loving. “I think it’s a very special picture,” Reed Altman writes. That’s an undeniable sentiment.

Boyhood: Twelve Years on Film by Matt Lankes (University of Texas Press)

Last year around this time, most film fans were anxiously awaiting the chance to see Richard Linklater’s Sundance smash, Boyhood. In a matter of weeks after opening, the 12-year-in-the-making backstory had become part of pop culture lore. While the film failed to pick up the Oscars many thought it should (besides Patricia Arquette’s much-deserved Best Supporting Actress statue), the passage of time has not diminished the boldness of Linklater’s approach. The gorgeous photographs by Matt Lankes in Boyhood: Twelve Years on Film make it even easier to appreciate the uniqueness of production. Here are the faces of Boyhood—all of them, from Mason and his mom and dad to the guy behind the counter at the liquor store. The behind-the-scenes pics, especially, demonstrate what an experience the film must have been to make, and remind us how thrillingly alive it felt to viewers.

 

Vacation Reads (Recent Film-centric Novels)

Missing Reels by Farran Smith Nehme (Overlook Press)

Self-Styled Siren blogger Farran Smith Nehme’s debut novel is an utter delight. Movie-loving lead character Ceinwen Reilly is a native of Yazoo City, Mississippi now living in 1980s New York. She finds herself on a quest to track down a long-lost silent film, and I find myself hoping that Emma Stone is cast in a big-screen adaptation of Reels.

West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan (Viking)

It is hard not to be fascinated by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s years in Hollywood. In West if Sunset, the great Stewart O’Nan (Snow Angels) imagines the final years of the author’s life. The novel is wonderfully detailed and hugely moving. It’s a fine companion to Fitzgerald’s own The Love of Last Tycoon.

Blood on Snow by Jo Nesbo (Knopf)

Jo Nesbo is no stranger to Hollywood—see Headhunters, and, hopefully, eventual adaptations of his Harry Hole novel The Snowman and the stand-alone novel The Son. (Channing Tatum is attached to the latter.) Blood on Snow, the compulsively readable story of a crime scene “fixer,” has Leonardo DiCaprio on board as producer and possibly star. Note to Leo: Blood is bloody good. Take the lead role, please.

The Revenant by Michael Punke (Picador)

Speaking of DiCaprio, the actor’s next film is The RevenantBirdman Oscar-winner Alejandro González Iñárritu’s adaptation of Michael Punke‘s 2003 novel. If the recently re-released book is any indication, DiCaprio has perhaps one of his most formidable performances yet in store. This tale of a 19th century a fur trapper on a quest for revenge is a captivating read. Buy it now, and ponder what Iñárritu and his stellar cast (which also includes Tom Hardyand Domhnall Gleeson) will bring to the table.

 

My Best of 2015 … So Far

5e25da37-61d7-44fd-a9a3-b2f5b8b5a791-620x372

Summer 2015 in cinema has been … dull. And mostly disappointing. Admittedly, I have not seen a few of the biggies — Jurassic World, Furious 7, Spy. But outside of the stupendous Mad Max: Fury Road, the blockbusters seem quickly forgotten. I enjoyed Avengers: Age of Ultron, yet it has not resonated culturally (or personally) anywhere near the first Avengers film.

However, there have been great films in 2015. Many of them were seen by me at TIFF14, others enjoyed as recently as this week. Here a list of my favorites of the year so far.

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road
  2. Clouds of Sils Maria
  3. Ex Machina
  4. The Duke of Burgundy
  5. What We Do In The Shadows
  6. ’71
  7. While We’re Young
  8. Eden
  9. Paddington
  10. Saint Laurent

Just outside: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, It Follows, Lost River, and When Marnie Was There.

In addition to those mentioned at top, I still need to see: Tomorrowland, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, Timbuktu, White God, Love & Mercy, Testament of Youth, Woman in Gold, Far From the Madding Crowd, Faults, Cinderella, Welcome to New York, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Danny Collins, Home, and Aloha. Yep, Aloha. I’m holding out hope that I’ll turn out to surprisingly adore it … Fingers crossed.

Cultivate Cinema Circle ‘plants cinematic seeds’

The_Case_Against_8_by_Diana_Walker-625x375

A bit more on Cultivate Cinema Circle and the screening that took place on June 4; here is my Buffalo.com “Screenings” post.

 

Even years later, the reverberations from the landmark Supreme Court case overturning California’s ban on same-sex marriage — Proposition 8 — continues to be felt. And the acclaimed 2014 documentary examining the issue, “The Case Against 8,” still packs a timely punch.

The involving film from directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White earned awards at the Sundance and SXSW festivals. Now, Buffalonians have an opportunity to catch it on the big screen, as “Case” will play the North Park Theatre at 9:30 p.m. June 4 as part of Buffalo Pride Week.

The screening is the debut presentation from a new local film series, Cultivate Cinema Circle. CCC director Jordan Smith hopes the series “plants cinematic seeds and nurtures them with community engagement and conversation that I hope will complement the wonderful programs already on offer in the city of Buffalo.”

As Smith puts it, “There is a hungry film community in Buffalo, and we hope to foster that relationship by screening films that otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to be shown here.”

Case in point is “The Case Against 8,” which, despite its acclaim, never hit Buffalo. “We feel it’s perfect for our inaugural screening,” Smith said.

For more information on the screening and on Cultivate Cinema Circle, visit cultivatecinemacircle.com.