As is the case with nearly all documentaries, Pierre Thoretton’s film on Yves Saint-Laurent—or more precisely on Saint-Laurent and his partner of 50 years, Pierre Bergé—is too long for its own good. L’Amour Fou is still very good, or at least it’s very good in its oddly muted way. That muted—almost distanced—quality may well be a reflection of its subject, whom the film presents as shy, even timid in everything but his work, and it perhaps suits him. It’s as if it’s a film about Saint-Laurent as Saint-Laurent might have wanted. That, however, might make it a little dispassionate and dry.
The film is structured around Bergé having the art collection which he and Saint-Laurent amassed during their 50 years together, auctioned off at Christie’s. This allows the narrative to have a certain shape—something that too many documentaries lack—but it may not be entirely in the film’s favor, since it’s not so easy to feel all that sympathetic to someone with about half-a-billion-bucks worth of collected art, regardless of how little happiness it brought him. Still, as Bergé makes clear—without trying to, and probably without meaning to—the tragedy of Saint-Laurent was that he defined himself in his own mind solely by what he created and what he collected. Bergé notes that, had Saint-Laurent outlived him, this auction would never have happened, because the removal of any of the items would have left a “black hole” in Saint-Laurent’s life.
What emerges from the comments of Bergé—whose devotion to his lover is no less intense for being understated—and others, combined with skillfully amassed archival footage is what might be called “Portrait of the Artist as a Shy Young Man.” There’s a youthfulness to Saint-Laurent, a giddy quality, and a sense of not quite taking himself seriously at any age about the public Saint-Laurent image. It is missing only from the scenes where he announces his retirement and in the few glimpses we get of him after retirement. Without the work, he looks lost, even slightly bewildered. But with the work, he comes across as a man working to seem sure of himself—and largely pulling it off—without quite escaping the sense that he expects to be “found out” and have it all snatched away from him with no warning.
But all this, it must be noted, is housed in a kind of guided tour of the couple’s very conspicuous consumption. The film unfolds like a cinematic version of a series of impossibly tasteful Architectural Digest photo spreads. We see their luxurious apartment in Paris; their equally luxurious house in Marrakech, Morocco; their chateau in Normandy, and its attendant dacha. Any one of these is far beyond the means of most of us, and they all have the appearance of not being lived in. I think that last part is what keeps that sense of “see how people who are better than you live” slightly at bay. With the exception of Saint-Laurent’s library, they seem to have existed simply to be looked at—and the film allows us to do that.
Don’t misunderstand, L’Amour Fou is not a great documentary, nor is it some kind of must-see work. It is a simple, straight-forward look at two interesting men and the world they inhabited—the world they created. Its value is finally going to depend on your level of interest in the subject. Not Rated, but contains adult themes, some partial nudity and drug references.