Fashion is fleeting, sighs a character in "Saint Laurent," which is why it's "sublime" -- a word that might well be applied to director Bertrand Bonello's homage to designer Yves Saint Laurent, a film that attempts the same reshaping of the biopic that its subject perpetrated on the women who wore his revolutionary clothes. Concentrating on 1967-76, when Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) transitioned from the world's most celebrated designer to an "interplanetary" brand (as one character calls it), the movie luxuriates in Saint Laurent's delinquency -- the drugs, the drink, the rough trade -- never failing to link it all to the nature of the man and his times, neither of which was forgiving when it came to homosexuality.
The consummate ennui that affects Saint Laurent and his not quite hangers-on like his muse Loulou de la Falaise (Lea Seydoux) and model Betty Catroux (Aymeline Valade) is rendered pitiful by Bonello's strategy of marching his parade of the young and beautiful into a swamp of self-destruction. This is especially true as regards Saint Laurent, who is clearly devoted to his art, but overwhelmed by life and especially by fame, and reacts with a very deliberate engagement with disengagement. The introductory scenes in which YSL employees -- clad in lab coats to suggest a kind of science taking place -- devote themselves to the finest, most detailed work, is faux comic when contrasted to the premeditated weariness exhibited by the boss and his friends. It becomes more than faux tragic when Saint Laurent's indulgences begin to outrace his enormous talent.
It's a miracle he lived so long. (YSL died in 2008 at 71.) The movie seems for so long to be headed toward catastrophe that the time leap Bonello executes toward the end of the film -- when we meet a much older but still prematurely enfeebled Saint Laurent in the late '80s -- is so audacious and disorienting it feels like something out of "2001." What "Saint Laurent" has been about is the ephemeral nature of beauty, youth and, of course, fashion. To be brought up against the concrete realities of mortality and survival just reinforces all that has come before, while also being as disturbing as the wrong shoes with the right dress.