How many fashion designers does it take to change a lightbulb? According to this sometimes bold, always attractive, but also undisciplined and overlong French biopic, the fragile and otherworldly Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel, beefing up YSL's weedy reputation with plenty of chest shots and the odd full frontal) would happily wait in the dark for Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Renier), his partner in love and business, to come home and get the lights working. More to the point, how many filmmakers does it take to tell the story of one of France's most revered fashion designers? So far in 2014: two. First there was Jalil Lespert's 'Yves Saint Laurent' and now we have simple 'Saint Laurent', the unofficial version, unsanctioned by the still-living Bergé. (Saint Laurent died in 2008.)
'Saint Laurent' is less interested than its predecessor in the exact nature of Bergé and Saint Laurent's relationship. It's less coy, though, about Saint Laurent's hedonism. There's his cruising in Parisian bushes; his binging on pills, accidently killing his beloved dog, who laps them up off the floor; and Bergé’s discovery of Saint Laurent unconsciousness and left for dead on a building site. This is written and directed by Bertrand Bonello ('The House of Tolerance', 'The Pornographer'), a less conservative filmmaker than Lespert. But its exploration of Saint Laurent's talent, tastes, sexuality, self-destruction and two key relationships, first with Bergé and then Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel), make it feel familiar. Bonello focuses mainly on the late 1960s and 1970s but gives us some sobering late-life scenes (with Saint Laurent played by Helmut Berger). Yet, unlike 'Yves Saint Laurent', this barely reaches back beyond the late 1960s and is more interested in how Saint Laurent dealt with success than how he achieved it.
Bonello's jigsaw chronology, playful editing and good use of music give 'Saint Laurent' the imaginative edge. However, he also allows his storytelling to wander, drift and become flabby in the film's final chapters. There are some commanding scenes – a business meeting between Bergé and American investors, a letter written from Saint Laurent to Jacques after their relationship ends, some clubbing and party scenes. But a sense of repetition means you end up wishing for a shorter, more concise account. It doesn't help that the characterisation, even of Saint Laurent himself, is often as thin as the models: the women, including Léa Seydoux as his muse and friend Loulou, get especially short shrift.
'Saint Laurent' is more interested in desire than talent, although there are just enough scenes of sketches, designs, fittings and catwalks to honour that side of the man. Unlike the clothes, the film is light on shape. It means it doesn't have an over-bearing point-of-view, but it also means it lacks a true voice. And a late, awkward scene set in the office of the newspaper Libération, with Bonello himself playing a journalist wrongly assuming in 1977 that Saint Laurent has died, only feels like an admission that 'Saint Laurent' is running at its subject from all directions but never quite reaching its core.