As a conceptual exercise, Pierre Thoretton’s new documentary “L’Amour Fou” is feathered in a nest of intriguing and luxurious what-ifs. Instead of taking the straight-on biographical approach, as so many others would have, Thoretton instead decides to look at the life of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent through the art collection and antiqued knickknacks he left behind and were sold, en masse, by Christie’s auction house following his death. Interesting questions immediately arise – what can we learn about this man from his possessions? Would his artistic interests outweigh his cultural impact through fashion? And, most importantly, how fucking rich was this guy?
Maddeningly, the film itself doesn’t quite answer any of these questions, except for maybe the last one (the answer: very fucking rich) and what starts out as a lovely, gold-speckled trip through the life and death of an astoundingly influential personality, becomes obscured, muddy, and ultimately hard to grasp. What’s left is a beautiful artifact, without much soul.
The movie begins with a press conference, conducted by Saint Laurent, announcing his retirement. After the archival footage goes black, we see footage of his longtime life-and-creative partner Pierre Bergé speaking at Saint Laurent’s funeral, with news footage of the casket being taken out to the hearse. It’s a powerful opening, for sure, and a rare bit of historical context, since for the rest of the movie, we more or less get extended interviews with Bergé and long, sweeping shots that crack through the couple’s various homes, lingering on specific pieces of artwork or gliding along desks littered with priceless heirlooms and artifacts.
At first, this is enough to satisfy you – the cinematography is truly gorgeous, especially for a documentary film, in which realism is usually achieved through the sacrifice of stylization. And the more you get into it, the more you can oddly identify with the scenario. We’ve all lost a partner, either by death or breakup, and much of the middle section of the movie plays out like a prolonged, heightened version of this. Except that instead of having to figure out what to do with your ex’s tour concerts, it’s a Matisse painting that would end up selling for a then-record 32 million Euro.
It’s just that the whole person-through-objects conceptual trapping doesn’t fill out an entire movie, especially when Bergé, who makes veiled references to Saint Laurent’s rampant drug and alcohol abuse and frequent adultery, never delves deep enough into what made them such an amazing couple. A cursory Google search reveals that by some accounts the couple had been romantically separated since the late ‘70s but, on Saint Laurent’s deathbed (he died of brain cancer – a fact that’s never brought up in the documentary), the couple were wed in a civil union. As romantic as the story already is, this would have added an amazing dimensionality to the film that it was sorely lacking.
Instead, we hear from Bergé about the couple’s various homes, each one of them staggeringly gorgeous (but not about Saint Laurent’s increasingly reclusive behavior towards the end of his life), his impact on fashion (but not the catastrophic 1987 runway show that ended his involvement in the ready-to-wear YSL lines), and his brief stint in the military (but not the possibly lifelong effect that cruelty imparted).
You want more, from Bergé and from the documentary. And while the documentary does regain its footing towards the end, with one of the most brilliant, haunting shots we’ve seen in a movie in a long, long time, the impact that the auction itself had on the art world isn’t even touched upon. It’s like Thoretton was so wed to this initial concept for the documentary that even when more interesting avenues presented themselves, he doggedly stayed on track. “L’Amour Fou” stays aloof for too long, or maybe all the interesting bits are just hidden behind all of that artwork. [B-]
"L'Amour Fou" hits theaters in limited release on Friday, May 13th