YVES SAINT LAURENT: L'AMOUR FOU / DVD Review

Released in cinemas on 7th November and coming to DVD on the 14th November, Pierre Thoretton's documentary L'Amour Fou charts the 50-year relationship between fashion designer legend Yves Saint Laurent and his lover and business partner Pierre Bergé. It is a curious beast. The decadent and extravagant public life of the couple, that perhaps befits those grandees of a world wide fashion empire, is presented and contrasted with Bergé's philisophical confessional that attempts to familiarise the audience with the private life of the designer and his lover, one that was rarely ever allowed public space. Visually arresting, mixing interviews with archive footage and a staggering wealth of black and white and colour photography, the film raises questions about our attachment to objects and their real value and asks us to examine our emotional and nostalgic attraction to people, places and possessions.

As Bergé very soberly explores the nuances of his relationship with the deeply troubled designer - a shy man, haunted by depression and a dependency on alcohol and drugs - their life together is also literally deconstructed as director Thoretton gathers these revelations during the preparations for the 2009 auction of the amassed treasures and art collection that are stuffed inside each of their homes. There is a feeling that as Bergé slowly empties his soul so the various homes also unburden their walls of each sculpture and painting as all are carefully removed and sent to Christie's for what was dubbed the 'sale of the century'. As Bergé reflects on the slowly diminishing collection, "It no longer means anything. The works will fly away like birds and find some place to perch."

... a remembrance of things past that celebrates the bond between them 
Thoretton structures the film very well. Bergé provides the candid recollections of his love life with Saint Laurent, one that became increasingly difficult as substance abuse took hold of the designer, while Thoretton's camera glides through each of their homes, allowing you to drink in the rich opulence of their lifestyle, the significance of the art works collected over fifty years - the Manet, the Brancussi, the Goya, the Mondrian and the Matisse - and understand how both men set the tone of cultural life in Paris during the 1960s and 1970s. Thoretton then occasionally injects archive interviews with the painfully shy Saint Laurent and shows the slow dismantling of this jewel encrusted empire as the valuers of Christie's invade these personal spaces and empty them.

What emerges about the collection is that it was put together through the sheer love for pieces that the men shared. They didn't follow trends, although there is some lovely archive footage of Bergé and Saint Laurent clearly delighted that Warhol has come to visit and they've acquired a set of his portraits of YSL, but instead supplemented inherited works with pieces purchased from friends such as Picasso, Giacometti or Dali. Each home represents their equally strong personalities and the collections are described by Philippe Jullian as a "sublime hotchpotch of works of art" and the Proustian nature of the documentary, a remembrance of things past that celebrates the bond between them as well as the notion that art triumphs over the destructive power of time, is very clear and constant.

Saint Laurent was so inspired by Proust that he often referred to himself, and assumed an identity for travelling incognito, as Swann, one of the central characters in the first volume of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. The couple later bought Chateau Gabriel in Normandy, several miles east from where Marcel Proust himself used to vacation from 1907 to 1914. Furthermore, the use of a Proust questionnaire, its roots stretching from a popular nineteenth century English literary convention to the current lists of questions asked of celebrities in all of the fashionable glossy magazines, is later captured in archive video footage where very briefly we see a playful, revealing set of responses (the one to "your favourite quality in a man?" is "body hair") from a bearded, grinning, flirtatious Saint Laurent, shedding a very welcome bit of light on a figure who remains almost ghost-like throughout the film.

Ironic, in a film which is introduced by Saint Laurent claiming that "every man needs aesthetic ghosts in order to live" but then shows Saint Laurent as a survivor of depression and abuse, quoting Proust to suggest that "the splendid and pathetic family of the neurotic is the salt of the earth." After the documentary opens with 2002 press coverage of Saint Laurent's retirement and the closure of the House of Yves Saint Laurent and, later, shows Bergé's funeral eulogy, the camera delicately picks out the personal objects in their Paris home and sweeps through the beautiful rooms, images and objects haunted by the past and the future, as Bergé reflects on their eventual destination of the auction house. For him the objects are not as important as the life and homes he shared with Saint Laurent and where Warhol and Jagger came over to hang out. He begins to elaborate on Saint Laurent's parting statement with a detailed discussion of the man's rise to prominence in the fashion design world.

Saint Laurent had already demonstrated his creative talents as a young boy but while his family supported his artistic endeavours, he felt ostracised from school and society. He didn't fit in - being, tall, skinny and somewhat effeminate was the antithesis of the macho culture that surrounded him - and he eventually made his way to Paris in 1953 on the back of a student fashion award, enroling in the couture school at Chambre Syndicale. By 1955 he had become an assistant at Christian Dior, his work eventually considered so good that he became Dior's assistant designer. When Dior suddenly died in 1957, Saint Laurent, at the age of only 21, became his successor as the House of Dior's couturier. Bergé recalls how both of them, as yet unaware of each other, attended Dior's funeral and that "it was a sign of fate that we should have been brought together." As Bergé points out, Dior's death anticipated a crisis within Paris fashion and there was enormous pressure on Saint Laurent to meet the expectations of the House of Dior and the fashion press. He had nine weeks to put together a collection and eventually launched the Trapeze dress, a softer version of the Dior New Look, that secured his international fame. The press coverage and archive footage here depict a painfully shy young man trying to cope at the centre of a media circus.
"It worked out very well" 
Bergé first met Saint Laurent as he was putting this collection together and later got to know him after a dinner arranged by Harper's Bazaar and where, he claims, "that the first darts of love's arrows struck us." However, all was not well at Christian Dior. Saint Laurent's later collections in 1958 and 1960 didn't go down well with the critics nor with the owner of Dior, textile magnate Marcel Boussac. Boussac had been using his political influence to protect Saint Laurent from conscription into the French army, then fighting Algerian nationalists. Boussac fired Saint Laurent shortly after and nineteen days into his army career, Saint Laurent had a breakdown and his later treatment, using dangerous levels of addictive sedatives, at the Val-de-Grace mental hospital is often seen as the trigger to his later dependency on drugs and alcohol and his increasing reclusiveness.

Bergé arranged to sue Dior and, meanwhile, with the support of an American backer the first YSL collection was shown in 1962 to positive reviews. A second collection, some six months later, firmly established the House of Yves Saint Laurent. They went from strength to strength and Saint Laurent's work not only reflected the mood of the times but also offered women the kind of read-to-wear clothes, sold through the company's Rive Gauche stores, that heightened their new sense of emancipation in the late 1960s. Highlights included the Mondrian dresses and the Pop-Art collections from 1965 and 1966, the introduction of the Le Smoking tailored tuxedo, safari jackets for men and women, and work that displayed African and Moroccan influences. There is plenty of footage of these collections interspersed throughout the documentary. "It worked out very well," as Bergé recalls and with that Thoretton employs a montage of YSL wedding dress collections set to the Wedding March as if to underline the success of this partnership, in both business and love, between Saint Laurent and Bergé.

Bergé uses Mondrian as an example of how and why they started their art collection. "We would never have imagined owning a painting by Mondrian," he offers as he recalls the Mondrian dresses of 1965. Their move to the Rue de Babylone apartment precipitated a collecting of art treasures and Bergé reflects that "little by little we were lucky enough to be able to acquire [them]" over a period of 20 years. He goes on to detail how they purchased certain works and as he does so Thoretton parallels this with footage of these precious items now being valued and removed from the apartment for the auction. The documentary shifts to other properties, as the partnership between Bergé and Saint Laurent flowered and then began to wither. The most astonishing home is the lavishly Moroccan styled house in Marrakech, Dar el Hanch, where the jaw dropping interiors influenced by ancient riads and their tadelakt plaster and zellige tiles, give way to courtyards and pools lined with avenues of palms and exotic plants. It was a joyful existence it seems and one shared with life-long friends such as Betty Catroux and LouLou de la Falaise. Both women illuminate how the relationship between Saint Laurent and Bergé actually worked, providing brief fragments about their emotional life that much of the documentary skirts around, something that stems from Bergé's own reluctance to talk about their intimate private lives perhaps.

The purchase of the equally stunning Dar es Saada, their Marrakech guest house, where they started living in 1975, marks the point at which Saint Laurent descended into drug and alcohol addiction. The designer was under extraordinary pressure to produce two haute couture collections and two ready-to-wear collections each year and, as Bergé observes of Saint Laurent, he "always thought that if he found a way to escape, he'd take it. And he did." The final half of the documentary not only looks at the launch of his range of perfumes, with Opium being criticised by the Chinese-American community for its negative associations with a drug that wiped out numbers of their population, but also the detrimental effects of Saint Laurent's jet set lifestyle and partying.

Bergé recounts that by March 1976 their relationship had deteriorated with Saint Laurent regularly returning home in a terrible state. He temporarily moved to a hotel and went back to Saint Laurent several times until he decided enough was enough and moved out altogether, living at the Lutetia Hotel, apparently at the end of the street and to remain close by. Thoretton contrasts archive images of Bergé supervising the crating up of his belongings in 1976 with the similar actions of the auction house at the Rue de Babylone apartment.

We also get some insight into Bergé's philanthropic, cultural, and political interests, marked by a perhaps questionable endorsement of President Mitterand and Bergé's clear commitment to gay rights and AIDS research. He supported the association against AIDS, Act Up-Paris and in 1994, he participated with Line Renaud in the creation of the AIDS association Sidaction, becoming its president in 1996, a position he still holds. Former French culture minister Jack Lang saw the love between Bergé and Saint Laurent as one that "had an emblematic value" and that offered younger gay men "both courage and power." This is further underlined when you understand that the $480 million raised by the sale of the collection, the exchanging of gravity defying amounts of money which the last half hour covers in some detail, is not for personal gain but to support Bergé's creation of a new foundation for AIDS research.

As the auction is prepared, Bergé reflects on Saint Laurent's eventual withdrawal from the world, his increasing depression only momentarily lightened by the rapturous welcome of his latest collections. "Fame is the dazzling mourning of happiness," seems to sum up Yves Saint Laurent, according to Bergé who tried to bring the designer out of his sorrow and solitude but admits that in his role in the partnership, "I knew my place. We never crossed into each other's sphere." Those last reclusive days were spent at Chateau Gabriel, where Saint Laurent and Bergé had commissioned Jacques Grange to decorate it with themes inspired by Proust's À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. This is complimented by footage of a ravaged looking Saint Laurent taking his final bow, serenaded by Catherine Deneuve, at his last show in January 2002.

Thoretton's documentary clearly leaves you wanting more. Much as the various houses are stunningly beautiful before they are emptied of their contents, it would have been even better if more details and insight into the personal lives of Bergé and Saint Laurent had been forthcoming. There is a feeling that they both do not wish to emerge from behind the fortresses they have constructed. Saint Laurent and Bergé were joined in a same-sex civil union known as a Pacte Civil de Solidarité shortly before Saint Laurent's death but the film makes no mention of this. Although the cameras lovingly trace across these interiors, the love between the two men is only ever fleetingly articulated and often the film struggles to raise itself above being an exercise in merely recording these places before they vanish.

Mind you, ever the pragmatist, Bergé offered his view of their civil partnership in a 2009 Telegraph interview, "We did it not for romantic reasons but because we had lived 50 years together: it was about achievement, and I had fought for it to be possible, so that homosexuals would be allowed to leave things to their partners." For Bergé it seems there always has to be some kind of rationalisation in the face of death and while the film does create some empathy for Saint Laurent's inability to deal with the pressures of his career it keeps placing the subject out of reach just as you think you might be able to see beyond the opulent lifestyle.

Alas, this also clashes with a feeling that you are watching extremely rich people sublimate their anxieties by spending vast amounts of money on art objects, no matter how much they love them and how beautiful they are. The documentary's unfortunate arrival during an economic melt down caused by a banking system that probably sponsors Christie's sales and whose executives still have disposable income to make such purchases leaves it open to an accusation that it is simply celebrating avarice. Emotionally, it feels a little too cool and elusive and at worst could simply be met with indifference because the ghost of a celebrated designer never manages to acquire substantial enough flesh. That would be a shame because Yves Saint Laurent was one of the most important designers of the last 50 years and he deserves his reputation.

Special Features

Monsieur Saint Laurent, As Seen By The People Who Worked With Him (11:50)
Anne-Marie Munoz (Director of Saint Laurent's studio), LouLou de la Falaise (fashion accessories designer), Paule Monory (studio assistant) and Jean-Pierre Derbord (chief tailor) discuss the typical Saint Laurent design process and techniques.
Homage to Mondrian by Yves Saint Laurent (3:06)
Brief exploration of how Saint Laurent transformed Mondrian's aesthetic into the iconic dresses from 1965 with Alain Tarica and Jean-Pierre Derbord.
Yves Saint Laurent - The Tuxedo Suit (2:37)
A look at another iconic design, the tuxedo suit, with Jean-Pierre Derbord.
55 Rue de Babylone (4:44)
A short vignette showcasing their apartment in Paris with commentary from the interior designer who helped them decorate it, Jacques Grange.
5 Rue de Bonaparte (5:53)
A look at Bergé's apartment with his accompanying commentary.
Le Chateau Gabriel (6:39)
The Gothic mansion that served as a final retreat for Saint Laurent with commentary from interior designer Jacques Grange.
Marrakech (3:56)
The undeniably beautiful residence in Morocco explored by interior designer Jacques Grange.
An Art Collection as Seen By the Dealers and Experts (7:20)
The collection is appraised by various art and antiques experts and dealers.
Marcel Duchamp's 1921 Ready-Made (4:19)
During the press conference for the Christie's sale, Duchamp's Dadaist Belle Haleine art work is singled out. It eventually sold for €7.9 million.
Francisco Goya's Luis Maria de Cistue y Martinez Goes into the Louvre (3:25)
The return of Goya's work to the Louvre, offered as a gift on behalf of the late Yves Saint Laurent and prefaced by a speech from Bergé.
Trailer

L'Amour Fou
Les Films du Lendemain / Les Films de Pierre / France 3 Cinéma / Canal+ / France Télévision
2010
StudioCanal DVD / Released 14 November 2010 / Cat No: OPTD2073 / Cert: PG / Feature Running Time: 99 mins approx / Region 2 / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 / Colour PAL / Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 & Stereo 2.0 / French language with English subtitles


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