Posts Tagged ‘music’

Film: “Saint Laurent”

May 29, 2015
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Gaspard Ulliel in “Saint Laurent”

Although overlong, this French biopic of fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent is superior entertainment. I would likely see it again – or rather up to the last third which, while skillfully made, significantly drops off in moviegoing pleasure. But this is partly due to the downturn in the subject’s life due to the cumulative effects of wild partying, sex and drugs finally catching up with him. Interestingly, another film of his life (which I have not seen) was released in the same year. It had the cooperation of the salon and of Saint Laurent’s lover and lifetime companion, Pierre Berge, which this film did not, but it was not as popular as this one.

The story time-jumps rather confusingly, but essentially covers the years from 1967 to 1976, climaxing with Saint Laurent’s triumphant “comeback” Moroccan-themed show of that year. Director Bertrand Borello confuses matters further by haphazardly inserting scenes taking place some 13 years later, in 1989, and casting another actor, Helmut Berger, for the elderly Saint Laurent. Berger is convincing in the role, but his scenes have no dramatic energy and tell us nothing particularly interesting.

But the first hour and a half sizzles. Obviously Borello is more inspired by the younger, more familiar Saint Laurent, who is played brilliantly by Gaspard Ulliel. If Ulliel was not already well-known as an actor, I would have sworn he was cloned directly from YSL’s DNA; a breathtaking resemblance. Also prominently featured are Jeremie Renier as Pierre Berge, and Louis Garrel as Jacques, the lover who nearly destroyed their relationship. The rest of the huge cast is uniformly excellent.

I haven’t seen any of Borello’s other films, but he demonstrates a bold imagination, and he takes some surprising risks. He painstakingly prolongs shots of beautiful people dancing to loud pop music in beautiful clothes but, against all the rules, I actually liked it. He packs his frames with gorgeous models in Saint Laurent’s creations, once again to excess, but I was never restless. He also lavishes much screen time on nudity and sex, all of it male but, again, it doesn’t seem gratuitous because Ulliel makes Saint Laurent such a seductive, mysterious presence, yet always vulnerable and human.

Wait. I guess you’d have to say some of it is gratuitous. Whatever.

One scene is typical: the camera picks up Jacques, who will become Saint Laurent’s lover, at a crowded dance club. The camera slowly pans back and forth between them while they only look at each other from across the dance floor, which is packed with revelers dancing in, and probably from, ecstasy. Yet it doesn’t seem ridiculous or affected, probably because the shot conveys the very obsessiveness we’ve already come to associate with Saint Laurent. He is hopelessly obsessed with beauty; he can never get enough, and it forms the basis of his tragedy and his genius.

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Gaspard Ulliel and Valerie Bruni Tedeschi in “Saint Laurent”

So the subjects are beauty, fashion, sex, drugs and music, all mixed together and ravishingly filmed. As you might expect, the dialog is unimportant, and it’s treated that way. But, interestingly, the two scenes where dialogue does count are the most memorable in the film. In the first, Saint Laurent’s lover and lifetime companion, Pierre Berge, is in a business meeting with Saint Laurent’s two American investor-licensees. The only woman present is the French-English interpreter. We see the extent of Pierre’s involvement with his lover’s business interests; it is thorough and unwavering. The back-and-forth with the licensees, especially the younger American played by Brady Corbet (riveting in a brief role), is oddly absorbing. We don’t need to understand the details to maintain interest; the intense verbal combat has an almost abstract elegance.

Even better is a scene in the salon. A pretty woman, just entering middle age, is grateful, and a little nervous, that Saint Laurent is personally attending to her fitting. But she does not think the outfit flatters her, and she tells him that, hesitantly. Then, with quiet, sensitive command, Saint Laurent deals with the problem. He advises her on the placement of jewelry, her walk and even her hair. With each adjustment, the woman (Valerie Bruni Tedeschi, simply wonderful) becomes more confident and alluring. The dramatic point is brilliantly made. Anyone can design beautiful clothing. But only haute couture can style the clothing to become inseparable from the beauty of the woman wearing it.

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Film: Inside Llewyn Davis

January 11, 2014

Let me say right off that I  enjoyed this film, with one strong reservation. The Coen brothers know how to present their quirky charmers, and how to make us care what happens to them. Oscar Isaac plays a young folk singer in Greenwich Village, 1961, and the milieu is so perfectly rendered that I felt I could walk through the doors of those coffee shops and settle down for a cappuccino, like I did then. The music, the settings, the fashions and hairstyles, just the overall look of the film is “just right”, and I applaud that.

And the story is pleasing too, right down to the “reprise” ending. The title character is shown dealing with the kinds of problems a lot of young music hopefuls dealt with then: flopping at friends because you didn’t have the money for rent; betraying those friends by sleeping with their girlfriends; random sex with various other girls; paying for the occasional abortion; rushing to music gigs that paid by passing the hat around; listening to your married sister tell you what a bum you are, and assorted other humiliations. Oh, and finding and returning a cat that you let escape from your friend’s apartment. While Llewyn doesn’t really change as a result of these events, we see that his resolve to continue his dream of music stardom is severely tested, but not destroyed. Above all, the film depicts a time and place that we can look back on nostalgically because life, while it could be harsh, was also innocent and simply understood.

The trouble is, it wasn’t. The standard refrain is that America was “innocent” until the shocks of the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam; that young people were only just beginning to question middle class values, and stepped outside of them with great trepidation. But actually, the young people in New York at that time were already steeped in cultural and political defiance. It was called the “counterculture” for a reason. As an artistic and educational center, New York was attracting young people who were already openly hostile to a society that glorified war, racism and materialistic excess. Unmentioned in the film, but so prevalent at the dominant academic giants at the time – Columbia and NYU – was the fact that you could attend lectures in those classrooms, every single day, about how America’s future was going to be glorious because Capitalism was dying, and the imminent triumph of Communism would finally bring justice to this country, and to the rest of the world.

My point is that, even for a self-absorbed, insensitive louse like Llewyn, there was the conviction that art would change the world, and there was no finer way to live than to liberate society with one’s “genius”. All of that other “little stuff”, like using and betraying one’s friends, and living off others, was for the greater good. And anyway, an artist should be appreciated for what he’s giving to the “cause”.

I can’t overstate how the omission of politics from the folk music scene at that time, in that place, lessened my appreciation of the film’s virtues. But I think this reaction is largely due to my intimate connection to the world it portrays. Most viewers won’t have that problem, and should have a good time.  The characters are rich and individualized, and the cast was perfect, starting with an electric Oscar Isaac. Only next time, I hope he gets to play a character with some backbone.


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