Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"In many ways the film is stronger for being viewed at a distance from the events it depicts."

Producing a documentary is a complicated business. Not only are there all the usual financial and creative issues to manage and permissions to seek, there is also the permission of the subjects - and whilst this is frequently managed ahead of time through negotiation and the signing of contracts, it has the potential to go wrong, especially where powerful individuals are concerned. Olivier Meyrou spent three years filming his behind the scenes documentary about the day to day lives of Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé only to have the latter abruptly decide that he didn't want it to be screened. It was only four years ago that the influential businessman finally changed his mind, and so now, finally, the film can be enjoyed by the general public.

Was it worth the wait? In many ways the film is stronger for being viewed at a distance from the events it depicts. It's no longer simply a behind-the-scenes look at one of the world's most acclaimed fashion houses - it's a piece of history, an inside look at a way of doing business that no longer really exists within the industry. There are, naturally, elements of nostalgia here, with some participants acknowledging this even during filming, but there's also a great deal of material simply observed for what it is. There's also a wider relevance to the story in light of similar changes in other industries, which have seen highly systematised corporate models replace small independent businesses. What we see here is something that seems almost familial. There's a strict hierarchy but, nevertheless, a real sense of affection between workers at all levels. in one scene, we see a seamstress adjusting a garment to make it less restrictive for the model wearing it - a small detail which reflects Saint Laurent's belief that women's clothing should be stylish and comfortable, demonstrating that it was more than just a marketing gimmick.

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The film is full of these revealing moments and it's also heavily focused on relationships, primarily that between the two founders of the house, which is captured with remarkable delicacy through the patient process of observation. The personal is inseparable from the professional here as we see how the two understand and anticipate one another, giving them the ability to work together with remarkable efficiency. Saint Laurent is, of course, the primary creative force; Bergé is the organiser. Yet on the rare occasions when one intervenes on the territory of the other, there is an immediate acknowledgement that he must be doing so for good reason. Concession comes easily. Each has an inherent confidence in the other's abilities.

Alongside these central figures we see a variety of their famous friends and customers, including Catherine Deneuve, whose support for their first prêt-à-porter boutique back in 1966 helped to make their name. Of equal importance to Meyrou are the seamstresses who assembled their catwalk designs. Watching them at work and listening to them talk about the clothes they put together emphasises the importance of the fine tailoring behind the label in a way that merely seeing the garments (when unable to touch them) cannot. The presence of the seamstresses also adds considerably to the insights into the workplace culture.

Saint Laurent himself is a curious figure in the film, nervous and awkward, avoiding the camera almost incidentally as he seems to be avoiding people wherever he can. Though lucid in interviews he seems unable to collect himself at other times. One gets the impression that the illness which would claim his life is already affecting his cognitive functioning. Bergé, for his part, shows the frustration of a man contending with the gradual loss of a loved one and a recognition of the inevitable change in his own role from partner to protector. At times it manifests as cruelty. Though Meyrou lets us see the love underlying this, his editing is never heavy handed and not every viewer will discern it. Bergé's reluctance to have others see this difficult period in his life is understandable.

With more of the film taking place in small offices, crowded workrooms and narrow corridors than in the grand spaces where Saint Laurent's collections were displayed, this film produces stark contrasts between the stunning beauty of clothes, models and displays and the humility of the spaces in which they were imagined. The designer's own living space was full of beautiful things and yet the impression we get is that at this stage in his life he was barely noticing them, intensely focused on his work in the manner of a man aware that he has a limited time in which to continue creating. the contrast between the brilliance of his creations and his own fading presence is every bit as stark. Meyrou's film is a touching tribute to his genius and a bittersweet reflection on mortality.

Reviewed on: 01 Nov 2019
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Documentary about the two years leading to Yves Saint Laurent's final fashion collection.
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Director: Olivier Meyrou

Starring: Yves Saint-Laurent, Pierre Bergé, Laetitia Casta, Loulou De La Falaise, Catherine Deneuve

Year: 2018

Runtime: 74 minutes

Country: France


Black Nights 2018

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