Reviewed at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival
Maybe I'm just not the audience for L'Amour Fou. I will admit to the vast indifference of my feelings toward the world of high fashion; I'm a guy who favors hoodies and jeans and movie poster T-shirts, so a biographical profile of one of the biggest names in haute couture was probably not created with me in mind. But I've been riveted by documentaries concerning subjects of little to no interest before. This is not one of those times.
The focus is on Yves Saint Laurent, the whiz kid who became head designer of the House of Dior at a mere 21, following the death of Christian Dior. His first designs were a sensation, but he was fired by the company a couple of years later; undeterred, he started his own company with his partner Pierre Bergé. The company became wildly successful; Saint Laurent and Bergé began buying expensive art to fill their extravagant home.
That art provides something of a framework for the film, which begins with footage of Saint Laurent's retirement and, later, his funeral. Bergé is having the collection packed up and shipped to New York, where it will be auctioned. In between the various steps of that process, we flash back to Saint Laurent's life and work, with testimony mostly provided by a few close friends, but mostly by Bergé.
Some of director Pierre Thoretton's devices are effective; there is an amazing sequence that shows Saint Laurent aging solely by showing, in rapid succession, him walking out at the end of several of his shows. We see the Warhol portrait of Saint Laurent hanging on his wall--and then go to a great old tape of the designer shortly after he received it, admiring and enjoying it. Much of the archival footage is well-chosen, and the black and white photographs are beautiful and evocative.
But the film drags from a narrative standpoint (to a casual observer, anyway), and several of Thoretton's choices are noticeably unimaginative (is there no better song to play during the montage of Saint Laurent out at the discos than "YMCA"?). We're intrigued by the controversy of his company's "Opium" scent, but that thread is discarded almost as soon as it is raised. At the beginning of the film, Bergé says that Saint Laurent was "born suffering from depression", and at the end he insists, "I only saw him happy twice a year,"--when the lines were complete. But why was that? What demons made him that way? What was the nature of the sadness that plagued him? Sadly, the filmmakers don't seem to know--or to have bothered to find out.
L'Amour Fou is ultimately a standard though competent documentary. As a biography, it imparts many facts but no real sense of who Saint Laurent was; he remains a cipher, in spite of the best efforts of the interview subjects. Thoretton seems more interested in gliding his camera through their habitat; Look at their pretty houses, he seems to be whispering, look at their pretty things. It's designer porn. The film ends with the auction at Christie's; the pieces all sell, for very high prices. And what are we supposed to feel? Relief? Jubilation? Envy? Anything? Who knows. Who cares?
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.