French FF 2011: L’amour Fou: Yves Saint Laurent & Pierre Bergé

L’amour Fou: Yves Saint Laurent & Pierre Bergé
France | 2010 | Dir. Pierre Thoretton | 98 mins.

In this affecting love (hi)story Pierre Bergé, one of the documentary’s central figures, attends two funerals. First, his life partner, the designer Yves Saint-Laurent, is given what amounts to a state funeral. Second, he bids farewell to the vast collection of artwork, antiques and various objets d’art the couple had amassed over their life together as it’s auctioned at Christie’s in February of 2009 at the Grand Palais des Champs-Elysées and attracts nearly half a billion US dollars’ worth of bids.

The film opens with Saint Laurent’s final press conference, followed by a moving eulogy from Bergé. As well as tracking the sale of the many Picassos, ancient Egyptian sculptures, and other art works and treasures, the film tells the story of Saint Laurent’s rise to prominence, beginning in 1958 with his appointment, at age 20, to the head of the House of Dior. The “dauphin de Dior” was chosen as the successor to one of the greatest French designers of the 20th century, Christian Dior, after having been his assistant for four years—a position he was hired for when he was just 17.

That same year, he met Pierre Bergé and the two began a life-long relationship that would survive the ups and downs of the next five decades. They built a brand together, owned several mansions and holiday homes (one in Normandy, one in Morocco), made many famous acquaintances, and collected hundreds of paintings and other pieces of art from all over the world.

Saint Laurent’s life was not as glamorous as it appeared from the outside, though: it was coloured by mental illness. An extremely shy, fragile character at the best of times, and seemingly beset by a perpetual nervousness, Saint Laurent suffered his whole life from a crippling depression, extreme anxiety and other maladies—most of which he attributes to the electro-convulsive therapy he was subjected to at a military hospital he stayed in after lasting only 20 days in the army as a young man. These issues, and the depression in particular, became the impetus for his descent into a dizzying, Studio 54-level jet-set lifestyle which involved truckloads of drugs and booze, as well as (of course) becoming friends with Andy (Warhol) and Mick (Jagger).

One way Saint Laurent was able to extricate himself from the heady, pressure-filled world of fashion was to retreat to his holiday home in Marrakech where he would “find peace,” in the words of one of his friends. The house he and Bergé bought in the early ’80s—when Yves was at his worst, Bergé remembers—is a sprawling, palatial mansion amid hectares of land. The film shows both its dissolution (as its contents are taken down from their spots on walls and perches) and the way it became a home. In a display of Saint Laurent’s quirkiness and charm, each of the rooms of the house is named for a Proustian character: Yves’ room is known as “Swann,” and Pierre’s is “Charlus.” (Proust and Rimbaud were Saint Laurent’s favourite writers.)

The holiday home in Marrakech was also a special place for Bergé: the couple were used it as a refuge from the tumult of May ’68, and both said they drew inspiration and energy from the house and its surroundings. “Château Gabriel,” a small dacha on the couple’s estate described by Bergé as “a special, mysterious and poetic place lost in the woods,” was a favourite spot for Saint Laurent, a place in which he could burrow away for weeks on end when his depression became severe, or when he had a break from the deadline-heavy arena of haute couture.

In the late ’80s, the couple became (financially) involved in the fight against AIDS, a passion continued by Bergé to the present day—it is understood that he donated much of the proceeds from the auction to awareness charities like “Sidaction.” In the last years of his life, Saint Laurent gradually withdrew from public life, making fewer and fewer public appearances. (He died of brain cancer in 2008 at Paris, aged 71.)

The documentary derives its beauty and emotional power from two formal aspects. Primarily, the beautiful score by Côme Aguiat evokes, per the filmmaker’s intentions, a nostalgic time long since passed, a melancholy bygone era that mingles with the present in a wonderful way. In addition, the camerawork—long, slow pans across hallways, art-filled libraries and reading rooms; through the variously leafy and sunny environs of the couples’ properties, and so on—imbues the film with a certain gravitas that sticks right to the final shot, in which a reluctant, vexed Bergé stares momentarily into the camera before bidding “adieu” to the house he and his lover shared.

L’amour Fou is, gloriously, that rare thing in documentary: a film as much about the great work of a genius as it is an intimate profile of his life, with his tangled emotions unpicked and his passions dissembled through the art he collected as well as the art he created.

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