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    Two French Films: Saint Laurent and In the Name of My Daughter

    GarySaint Laurent, opening May 15, is the second feature film about Yves Saint Laurent in as many years. Despite its title, this biopic, co-written and directed by Betrand Bonello, is not a hagiography. The filmmaker does not present the trendsetting fashion designer’s life from childhood to death (as Jalil Lespert’s uneven Yves Saint Laurent did last year). Instead, this film focuses mainly on the period of the late 1960s/early 1970s, when Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) was at the height of his fame. Saint Laurent toggles back and forth between various years, which makes this drama more of a patchwork chronology than a proper biography. The narrative approach actually dilutes the drama because Bonello emphasizes mood over plot, giving the film a lush, velvety feel rather than imbuing the story with emotion.

    Saint Laurent is best when it immerses viewers in an aspect of its subject’s life. An early scene in the designer’s atelier, where his seamstresses are fitting clothes, is sublime; it captures the detail of the work, and the genius of Laurent’s style. Likewise, a pair of episodes set in discothèques where Laurent spots and desires the model Betty Catroux (Aymeline Valade), or flirts with the dangerously sexy Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel) are terrific. When Bonello slowly pans back and forth across a crowded dance floor between the two men, he raises the erotic frisson between them.

    filmHowever, too much of Saint Laurent is all style and no substance. The clothes are fabulous, and there are moments where Laurent talks about his influences—Marlene Dietrich, Mondrian, and Marrakesh—or mentions having youth, beauty, and wealth, but they are not especially illuminating. The film shows Laurent’s lavish lifestyle, replete with objets d’art he and Bergé collect, but these symbols of divine decadence—plates, a giant Buddha, dogs—are meaningless and empty.

    Clocking in at 150 minutes, Saint Laurent is too long not to be a more thorough investigation of its subject’s life. Much of the film is given over to Laurent losing his grip on reality, something his mother (Dominique Sanda) observes, but which is also conveyed by Bonello in magical-realist scenes as when Laurent sees/imagines snakes in his bed. When Laurent, in a state of hallucination, almost kills Bergé, the latter moves out. But so little is shown of their relationship together that this event has no real impact.

    Bonello makes other strange choices that also fail to pay off. A scene featuring a model and a nude woman discussing Laurent is intriguing, but it goes nowhere. The film also jumps ahead in time during its last third to show Laurent in 1989 (where he is played by Helmut Berger). These scenes feel very out of sync with the rest of the film.

    To his credit, Bonello does coax an outstanding performance by Ulliel. The actor, a spokesmodel for the cologne Bleu de Chanel, channels Laurent convincingly eyeing a model as he dresses her, or expressing Laurent’s despair as he grapples with the pressure of having to create another new fashion line. Ulliel is also playful, as when he recreates YSL’s famous nude photograph for an advertisement.

    In support, Jérémie Renier is underutilized as Pierre Bergé, but Louis Garrel makes a very striking impression as Jacques de Bascher. Garrel is so seductive and captivating here, the film loses some momentum when his character disappears from the story.

    Saint Laurent is a glossy, but erratic film. Bonello eclipses his subject, capturing Laurent’s spirit, but not his soul.

    Opening May 22 is gay writer/director André Téchiné’s In the Name of My Daughter, a juicy drama about greed, love, and betrayal in 1976, Nice. A fictional tale based on true events, the film has Renée Le Roux (the indomitable Catherine Deneuve) assuming control of the struggling Palais de la Méditerranée casino with the assistance of her young hotshot lawyer, Maurice Agnelet (Guillaume Canet). Around the same time, her daughter Agnès (Adèle Haenel), returns home after a failed marriage. When Maurice is denied a promotion, and Agnès has her inheritance delayed, the pair couple up and plot to unseat Renée from her board. But the relationship between the young lovers may be in trouble, and things eventually take a mysterious turn.

    Téchiné takes a slow-burn approach to In the Name of My Daughter, and the film benefits from a trio of top-notch performances. If the film’s too cool tone fails to yield much suspense, the end credits deliver a nice little shock.

    © 2015 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer