Saint Laurent: Revealing look at a designer’s life

The “biopic” — by its definition — is a movie that can take a fresh look at someone’s life without the obligation to be fully accurate. While some critics scoff at the liberties moviemakers may take, this type of film intends to deliver an interpretaton of events, not a detailed transcript.

Saint Laurent, a new biopic about famed designer Yves Saint Laurent, lives up to what a biopic can be. While the film does not pretend to present all the facts about this captivating personality and his work, it offers a fascinating view into the lifestyle behind the look. While we don’t know how accurate the film may be, it suggests that an exaggerated view of the world can lead to professional success and personal disappointment. And while some parts of the designer’s life may be extreme, the film helps us understand how life can influence art

Without following a traditional biographical narrative, Saint Laurent focuses on the period when the designer made his most significant impact on the world’s look. From 1967 to 1977, as the world embraced personal and financial liberation, Saint Laurent created new fashions to define this emergence. For women working in the corporate world, the designer imaginatively combined traditional masculine and feminine looks to visualize changes in corporate dynamics; for men reaching beyond corporate comfort, the designer loosened expectations for how someone could dress.

As crisp as the designer’s creative choices may have been, Saint Laurent was inconsistent in his personal priorities. From the relationships he selected, to the substances he absorbed and the experiences he pursued, he lived as exaggerated a life as any designs he imagined. This made him a symbol for indulgence during a period defined by how much stimulation people could absorbe. Saint Laurent brought every layer of an extreme life into his designs. Each piece reflected the man and the moment.

What makes Saint Laurent so interesting a film is how director Bertrand Bonello balances the professional challenges and triumphs with the personal dependencies. While he never excuses the designer for his selfishness, the director reveals how a lack of discipline can actually inspire precision. Bonello helps us learn about the man by studying the work and absorbing the lifestyle. Well cast as the designer, actor Gaspard Ulliel creates a physical presence to parallel this journey. He captures the essence of Saint Laurent’s sense of style as well as his capacity to deny the last impacting of negative behavior. He helps us see how someone so haunted by life can, at the same time, make life look much better.

Bonello’s approach, ultimately, raises more questions about Saint Laurent than it answers. And that’s why the film works so well as a biopic. Through his eyes, we glimpse someone’s life without being so deluged by facts that we fear we’re in a classroom instead of a movie theater. By focusing on how Yves Saint Laurent sees his world, Bonello and Ulliel make us want to learn more about how the designer lived and worked.

Film Nutritional Value

Saint Laurent

* Content: High. The life behind the work of a fascinating designer and cultural icon comes to life under the careful eye of director Bertrand Bonello.

* Entertainment: High. Because Bonello focuses on the man as much as the designs we get to know a turbulent soul who separates life from work while letting one inform and inspire the other.

* Message: High. Any adult interested in the designer’s impact on what people wore and how they lived will be fascinated by this look at the man behind the designs.

* Relevance: High. While this is not a family film, it can provide an opportunity to help adults appreciate the way people in certain circles lived during a specific period.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Adults will have a lot to discuss about how the film explores a most fascinating life. But it’s not a movie for children, even older teenagers.

(Saint Laurent is rated R for “graphic nudity/sexual situations, substance abuse and language.” With a running time of 150 minutes, this film is in French with English subtitles.)

4-1/2 Popcorn Buckets

Reel Moments With Bio Pics

Movies love to tell stories about real people.

From historial figures to sports heroes to artistic icons, the powers-that-be in film love what biopics create on screen and generate at the box office. The combination of a familiar image, a pre-sold title and a compelling narrative give the people behind the screen just what they want to project into the theater.

A biopic works best when the moviemaker focuses on a specific part of a subject’s life, rather than try to recapture the entire life in one film. The good ones also help us learn something new about a figure that the history books don’t reveal. That may mean the creator takes liberties interpreting actual events. And that’s the filmmaker’s choice. And, because the director makes the movie, he or she gets to decide what it’s about.

Mike Leigh’s Mister Turner, a penetrating look at artist J. M. W. Turner, defines the biopic with its brilliant use of color, painstaking attention to detail and devastating portrait of a man obsessed with art while incapable of traditional connections. The film avoids the temptation to make the narrative into a “paint by numbers” review of the ups and downs of a career. Leigh gives us less insight into Turner’s creative process than he examines why art is so essential to the man’s being as well as how a sensitive man can blister when facing criticism. In a most affecting sequence, Leigh follows Turner’s reactions to other artists discussing his work at an exhibit. When they do not share Turner’s vision, the director paints a turbulent picture of the importance of acceptance to this artist’s soul. Leigh makes us believe that the gifted Turner is tormented by fears that he will disappoint people, even those who only know him through his art.

Anyone of a certain age in November 1963 likely remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news the President had been shot in Dallas. Time stood still that Friday and, when it resumed, life was never as innocent. Even if the film JFK did not try to explain the events, it would give us a lot to talk about in its recreation of the national horror we experienced that day. Director Oliver Stone dares to ask, “what if there’s more to history than history wants to reveal?” Who was this angry man accused of shooting the President during his lunch hour? How did he have access to the right spot to use a gun he brought to work to privately (and perfectly) shoot the President? As the nation watched in horror two days later, why would someone want him killed so quickly? Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone or play a role in a broader conspiracy? And, if so, how far did the conspiracy reach and how were clues hidden? Stone believes he may have an answer to those questions. If he occasionally exaggerates a fact, that’s his creative choice as a director. What makes JFK so meaningful is that it returns us to a moment that changed the nation.

Great military heroes dare to think bigger than others. In World War II, a global conflict unlike, hopefully, the world will ever experience again, several military leaders created a different world order by daring to think and act differently. Of these, George S. Patton was the most controversial, as well as the most creative, in how he looked at the world, the duty of soldiers, and the potential for world peace. Because director Franklin J. Schaffner chooses to focus on Patton the man in the Oscar-winning biopic, and look at his military actions through his unique view, the film comes alive with an energy unique to films of this genre. Patton teaches us about a significant period of time in the world’s history as it explores the life and mind as this larger-than-life military leader creates victory on the battlefield at the same time he creates havoc with his troops, superiors and the media. This is not a traditional film biography; we never see sequences of General George S. Patton as a child, a student at West Point, or as a husband. We only see him at war, where he loved to be; we see into his soul as he makes decisions and take actions that will ultimately change the course of the war and the fate of the world.

Some heroes are almost too complex to absorb. The differences they make to the world may look one way when events occur and different, years later, when viewed by history. Only history can separate the reality from the myth. In 1962, director David Lean, who proved himself a master of the film epic with The Bridge on the River Kwai, gave himself an ultimate challenge, to try to make sense of T.E. Lawrence, a controversial man at the center of some of meaningful moments in the history of what we now call the Middle East. The director puts us in the middle of a fascinating part of the world at a defining time as the British lose their hold on the future of the land and the destiny of its people. He teaches us, more than he could imagine, the fundamentals that continue to define the conflicts in this part of the world. And he makes a most entertaining movie at the same time.

We go to the movies to be entertained, informed and inspired. And the biopic remains one of our favorite types to see.

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