No word can stake a greater claim for being devalued than “genius.” From supreme intellectual reverence to unimaginative efforts of slapping the label on any and every passing thought, genius is no longer that select, once-in-a-lifetime ideal. There is genius all around us, in routine actions, mundane turns of phrase, the recycling of what has come before.
I came close to slipping the word in the title of this feature. “The Elusive Genius of Saint Laurent” would have fallen right in with our chosen acceptance of the narrative of the word “genius,” and I suppose it would have also matched the subject. The Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) presented to us by director/co-writer Bertrand Bonello (with Thomas Bidegain, who has screenwriting credits for A Prophet and Rust and Bone) has that faraway remove to him — the sense that he, in mind, body and spirit, occupies a space removed from the ordinary. The set-up begins in 1974, with Laurent strolling into a hotel, registering under an alias, settling in his room and agreeing, by phone, to an interview in which he will recount the key moments of his life and journey thus far. It feels like a traditional introduction — a lax decision, lacking style.
Therein lies the first step toward the strange and the surreal, what would be so easy to define as “genius.” Laurent teases us during the early moments of this one-sided conversation with hints of dark trouble — his commitment, the seeds of addiction and the image of him lying beaten and alone, only to be picked up by a stranger. All of this, we are told, took place more than 16 years ago. And then, we encounter him in the late 1960s, a scant seven years before the hotel room interview, and he is firmly the Yves Saint Laurent of fashion, in his prime. His small and terribly loyal team of seamstresses and assistants measure models, seeking the perfect forms for his designs, and meticulously inspect the lines for the slightest anomalies in the cut and/or fit. He is spoken of in hushed awe. A seamstress, fearing the inadequacies in her work, breaks into barely stifled tears.
And when he appears, Laurent seems distracted, constantly adrift from all traces of life around him. He focuses in, though, on clothes and the female form. In these instances, what he sees in his mind’s eye comes closest to matching reality, and he stirs to some semblance of what we might call engagement. Watching Laurent in these all-too-brief seconds recalls similar scenes in the recent release Love & Mercy, which also happens to track another figure — Beach Boy Brian Wilson — burdened with the weight of genius. Much like Bonello here, Bill Pohlad, the director of Love & Mercy, is blessed with performers able to capture that elusiveness of intellect and spirit, those character traits we associate with genius.
Ulliel as the primary Laurent (Helmut Berger settles into the role when we see Laurent in the late 1980s) approximates the difficult balance of being connected to an other-worldliness while never succumbing to blankness. He matches the wonderful turns in Love & Mercy by Paul Dano and John Cusack (as the younger and older Wilson, respectively) by fully inhabiting the silences and the inaction as the world runs through its paces. Jazz great Miles Davis used to refer to this, in music, as being attuned to the space between the notes, and maybe that is where genius truly resides.
Bonello provides opportunity for Ulliel to capture that phase shift, grounding the action in a late 1960s/early 1970s milieu that gazes at the social unrest of the United States during the period, beautifully juxtaposing newsreel footage alongside the seasonal fashion shows without seeming crass or thoughtless, but never sullying Laurent’s hermetically sealed bubble. Laurent drifts through the disco scene alert to female bodies that match his drawings and stumbles upon lovers to pass the time.
Saint Laurent never hurries through its story; in fact, it could be argued that there is very little “story” at all to what we witness. The film is little more than a hazy and aimless stroll with a magnetic presence by our side. Laurent told us upfront that he was ready to share his story (that intro replays at almost the exact halfway point of the film’s runtime as he finally catches up with himself), but the real genius of Bonello’s presentation is that his Yves Saint Laurent could care less about guiding us along the way.
Laurent is content to wander through his life, muttering to himself with his favorite drink and drug of choice at the ready. Whether we keep up or not matters not at all to him. (Opens Friday at Esquire Theatre) (R) Grade: B+