During the last few years, we've seen a lot of fashion films — "Valentino: The Last Emperor," "Coco Before Chanel" and "The September Issue" among them.
But "L'Amour Fou," which opens locally Friday, May 20, may be the most tender. It centers around Yves Saint Laurent's lifelong partner, businessman Pierre Bergé, as he comes to terms with the death of the designer.
The film opens with Saint Laurent giving his televised retirement speech in 2002, during which he says he is proud to have created the modern women's wardrobe. For him, fashion exists not only to make women beautiful but "to reassure them so they can assert themselves."
It's a quote from an era when designers seemed to have a loftier purpose. By designing practical pieces, such as safari jackets, trench coats, peasant blouses and Le Smoking suits, Saint Laurent "played a part in the transformation of his time."
He also lived that time, the 1960s and '70s, to its jet-set fullest, with three lavish homes — in Paris, Marrakech and Normandy — and an art collection that fetched $483.8 million on the auction block. (The proceeds went to charity and to support the Fondation Yves Saint Laurent in Paris.)
Why did Bergé sell it all after the designer's death in 2008? It's hard to tell. Maybe because he was used to playing the role of caretaker to the fragile Saint Laurent, which he did throughout their relationship. He was the yin to the designer's yang, in the same way Giancarlo Giammetti was for Valentino Garavani.
In the film, Bergé speaks poignantly about attending to the collection's "funeral" and hoping the precious pieces will "fly off like birds and find a new place they can perch." He adds, "But losing someone with whom you have lived for 50 years, whose eyes you closed … that is another thing entirely."
Bergé and Saint Laurent met in 1958, soon after the designer presented his first collection for Christian Dior. National treasure Dior had just died, and there were questions about whether the label would go on. It did, but not for long under Saint Laurent. He left after just six seasons to start his own fashion house with Bergé in 1962.
The two bought an apartment on Rue de Babylone and began collecting art. There was no order to their acquisitions; they came upon things through chance encounters, Bergé explains. In the film, as the "art undertakers" dismantle the apartment, carefully removing and inspecting each piece, Bergé recalls the stories behind some of them. Upon seeing Saint Laurent's famous Mondrian dress in 1965, he says, "I never thought we would own a Mondrian, but then one fine day one came into our lives, followed by others." And Goyas, Matisses, Ensors and Picassos.
The film is full of fascinating historical footage of runway shows, the Palace nightclub, the Opium perfume launch and ballerina Zizi Jeanmaire dancing in a spectacular pink flower costume created by Saint Laurent. There are personal photographs from Saint Laurent's archives, too, of his model muses Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Catroux and his friends Maria Callas and Andy Warhol.
Bergé opens their sumptuous homes in Marakkech and Normandy, where each room is named after a character from a Proust novel. The camera's long tracking shots take the viewer through slowly, lingering on the perfect fountains and frosted lamps, as if led by a spirit guide. The houses are quiet and still, with fresh flowers in every room. But without a person living in them, they seem as cold as museums.
Despite a world of riches, Saint Laurent was rarely happy. He was born depressed, Bergé says, and sought refuge in drugs and alcohol: "Fame brought him nothing but suffering."
Bergé surmises that had he died first, Saint Laurent never would have organized the auction. "He would not have been able to live without this painting or that statue," Bergé says. "It would have been like a black hole, he would have had vertigo." And there is something sad about seeing all of the crates being loaded aboard an Air France jet to go on display at Christie's in New York and London in advance of the sale. Sad and crass.
At last, the day of the auction arrives, and Bergé solemnly takes his seat. He watches the spoils of his love being picked apart. The Goya painting, the dragon chair, the Brancusi sculpture "Portrait of Madame L.R." that goes for $26 million. It makes you think about the sum total of someone's life, and question the reasoning behind accumulating so much stuff, whether it be art — or fashion.
For his part, Bergé doesn't seem to mourn the loss of the pieces so much as the memory of the person who shared them.
"L'Amour Fou," in French with English subtitles, opens Friday at the Laemmle Royal Theatre in West L.A. and the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.