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Movie review: 'L'Amour Fou'

Art, fashion and love are at the heart of Pierre Thoretton's documentary on designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner in all things, Pierre Berge.

May 20, 2011|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Yves Saint Laurent and his models.
Yves Saint Laurent and his models. (Sundance Selects )

It is fitting that French filmmaker Pierre Thoretton chose to call his documentary on designer Yves Saint Laurent "L'Amour Fou," or crazy love, for it is a story of passions, but not in the conventional sense.

Not the first documentarian to examine Saint Laurent's life, this affectionate and frustrating film is essentially a deconstruction of the aesthetic life of this true visionary as defined by the art he collected. The story is primarily told by Pierre Berge, the man who helped amass the museum-quality works, who ran Saint Laurent's business from the beginning, and who was his companion for 50 years. Truly, it was until death — Saint Laurent's in 2008 — do they part.

Over the years, Saint Laurent was the creative genius, while Berge managed the details. While Berge remained in the shadows of the designer's life, happily he says, his imprint is all over the documentary. And that is the central weakness of the project, Thoretton's second, with both film and the filmmaker paying as much deference to the shadow as the star.

Nevertheless, the documentary is fascinating as a museum piece with Berge serving as docent. There are clips of the night Mick Jagger stopped by, a recollection of the Picasso they couldn't live without, a mention of the muse that actress Catherine Deneuve would become. But the interior machinations of Saint Laurent's life remain carefully guarded.

It helps that little was ordinary about Saint Laurent. The film takes us back to 1957, when the designer and the French industrialist first met, auspiciously, at Christian Dior's funeral. Within weeks, Saint Laurent was named as Dior's successor and his meteoric rise would begin. Not long after, Berge and Saint Laurent moved in together, young men in love. Though the relationship would take many shapes over time, it remained unbroken until Saint Laurent's death from brain cancer, and was capped by the poignant and poetic eulogy Berge delivered at what came very close to a state funeral in France.

Berge's decision to sell off their massive art collection becomes the framework for the film. As he explains, without Saint Laurent the pieces have lost meaning; he is ready for someone else to love them. As each vase, lamp, painting, sculpture is assessed by the auctioneers, then packed and finally sold, Berge reflects on what drew the couple to them in the first place; how the design, the colors and the style would spill over into the otherworldly confections that Saint Laurent would unveil on the runway. Feathery one year, color blocks another.

Though Berge is the primary narrator, the filmmaker also makes use of news footage, family photos and interviews with two of the designer's muses and close friends — Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise — among others. With that, there are glimpses of what life was like inside this house or that as their existence shifted between Paris, the Dar Es Saada house in Marrakech and the Dacha house in the French countryside. Often it was Saint Laurent's depression that would drive them hither and yon. Though Berge set up a separate Paris residence for himself in the mid-'70s, it was just down the street and he and the designer were rarely apart.

The director opens strong, with footage of the news conference Saint Laurent held in 2002 to announce his retirement. It is a remarkably candid moment for the notoriously shy designer. He laments what has become of the fashion world and the craft that he was destined to serve. He speaks movingly of the inner circle that supported him, his deep appreciation for the countless unknown women who wore his clothing, and his battles with the drugs, alcohol and depression that almost destroyed him.

For all the power of that footage, it speaks most unfortunately, and most eloquently of what has gone missing — the film will never get that close to the man again. The film makes note that the art was auctioned off by Christie's in 2009 for more than 370 million euros. However, the heart of the designer is not on display. It remains with a certain private collector.

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