With a title like L’Amour Fou, Pierre Thoretton’s documentary about fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his life partner Pierre Berge promises a wild ride, a story of mad love. They had a relationship that endured throughout 50 years of glamorous living, business triumphs and failures, infidelities and Saint Laurent’s drug and alcohol abuse as well as his chronic, often crippling depression. Arrows first flew, Berge tells us, at a fashion dinner in 1958; they soon moved in together, sharing homes until 1976, at which point a worn-out Berge retreated to a hotel just down the street. But they remained a couple in an emotional sense and married in a civil ceremony shortly before Saint Laurent’s death in 2008. It was Berge who closed Saint Laurent’s eyes for the last time.
In short, there was plenty of mad and crazy love between them, but this melancholy documentary (in limited release) represents their partnership as a sort of still life: a thing quieted first by aging and then by absence. Whereas Italian fashion icon Valentino was larger than life in The Last Emperor, Matt Tyrnauer’s jazzy 2009 documentary, Saint Laurent in L’Amour Fou is mostly a rather sweet and anguished ghost. There are tantalizing glimpses of him — at 21, he drolly tells an interviewer that he’s “not unhappy” with his first collection — but it doesn’t feel like a full portrait. (This is the third Yves Saint Laurent documentary; two from 2002 concentrated on his career.) Thoretton focuses on the literal and figurative dismantling of the life Saint Laurent shared with Berge: an auction of their joint possessions. The central image that emerges is of Berge, who, having lived in the shadow of the fashion giant for five decades, steps out of it and walks sadly but resolutely away.
While there is never any doubt about their bond, the mad love of Thoretton’s title could also refer to the constant, fevered acquisition and adoration of beautiful objects. Whether in Marrakech, Morocco, on the Left Bank or in the French countryside, their homes were crammed with paintings, sculptures and vases. Busy as he was turning out two collections a year, Saint Laurent was also busy decorating: filling up spaces, creating moods within places (their country home paid homage to Marcel Proust, with rooms named for characters from Remembrance of Things Past). And he spent a lot of time languishing in them, Berge says, too depressed to entertain any of his glamorous friends (Andy Warhol, Catherine Deneuve and Mick Jagger all appear in archival footage, and Thoretton interviewed Saint Laurent’s twin muses, Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Catroux).
As the camera pans over a tasteful library in Saint Laurent’s Paris apartment, with Warhol’s portraits of Saint Laurent peeking down from a high shelf, Berge says the designer was particularly fond of this room. “It offered him a little more privacy, away from all the masterpieces we owned,” he explains. It’s a real “Say what?” moment; while everyone knows money can’t buy happiness, the notion that Saint Laurent, lover of beauty, needed a refuge from his more monumental possessions is startling. In his 2002 retirement speech, much of which is shown here in fuzzy black and white, Saint Laurent spoke of needing “aesthetic phantoms to live,” of chasing, seeking and tracking them down — but he did not mention needing rooms in which to hide from them. L’Amour Fou makes you contemplate your own clutter with an eye to a yard sale. Whether it’s a Brancusi sculpture looming over the living room or a stereo that works properly only half the time, ultimately it’s all just stuff, right? When Thoretton pans over Saint Laurent’s former bedroom or living room, tellingly, it’s dull and flat, not nearly as interesting as vintage shots of angular Saint Laurent posing among objects. The point he’s making is clear, but he hammers it home with a few too many shots of crowded-but-empty rooms.
That yard-sale urge also seizes Berge, albeit in a much bigger sense. He allowed Thoretton into his life as he was stripping their homes, preparing to sell their collection during a February 2009 auction. It was for a good cause — selling 733 paintings and objets d’art raised over $480 million, which Berge used in part to fund AIDS research — and Berge, speaking solemnly to the camera, seems to have no regrets. The collection was a “mixed oeuvre, composed of blended tastes,” he says. “It no longer means anything. The works will fly away like birds and find some place to perch.” That’s a wholly sensible sentiment. Let the yard sales begin. But such a dispassionate point of view, however admirable, keeps the temperature of L’Amour Fou too low. It could have used some of the fever that fueled Saint Laurent’s fashions.