Film Review: L'Amour Fou

Handsomely crafted documentary about a beautiful but rocky power relationship is also one of the best fashion films ever made.

In L'Amour Fou, Pierre Thoretton tells the story of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his longtime lover/business partner, Pierre Bergé. The "crazy love" of the film's title refers to the passion-at-first sight which struck Bergé upon meeting Saint Laurent when the latter was first installed as the appallingly young 21-year-old new designer at the house of Christian Dior, after that couturier's death in 1957. The craziness continued through their subsequent relationship, through unimaginable success and sadness, given business pressures and Saint Laurent's highly complex, manic-depressive nature and dependence on drugs and alcohol.

The film begins with footage of Saint Laurent reading his farewell address upon his retirement from designing in 2002. He is obviously aged and severely weathered from decades in the fashion trenches, but reads his words with simple dignity, and they are both beautiful and bitingly real: “I’ve gone through much anguish, many hells. I’ve known fear and a tremendous solitude. The deceitful friends that tranquilizers and narcotics turn out to be. The prison that depression can be and that of mental-health clinics. One day I came out of it all, dazzled but sober. Marcel Proust taught me that ‘the magnificent and pitiable family of neurotic people is the salt of the earth.’”

This is topped by the even more moving documentary coup de theatre which follows at Saint Laurent's funeral, with Bergé’s memorial tribute: "The Paris morning was young and beautiful on the day we first met. You were fighting your first battle that day you found fame and since then the two of you have been inseparable. How could I have imagined that we would be here 50 years later in each other’s presence and I would be bidding you a final farewell?"

The words of these men say more about what linked them than anything else—it was obviously the meeting of two formidable minds, knowing exactly what they wanted, but which were also touched with poetry and an untold appreciation for beauty. Bergé is, perforce, the "star" of the film, and he emerges as incredibly articulate and sensitive, which may well surprise many who have long considered this French Master of the Universe as the hardest of industrialist nuts. In historical footage, we see Saint Laurent heartbreakingly morph from a young, faun-like creature, filled with shyness and fun, to the staggering wreck he became, uncannily ruined by success.

Thoretton was granted incredible access, not only to Bergé, but to the Saint Laurent archives themselves, and obviously made full use of them in this scrupulously researched film, which is also a full portrait of the fashion business and does more than any other I've seen to convey the killer kinds of pressures which drove Saint Laurent and, after him, such talents as Alexander McQueen and John Galliano to madness. Saint Laurent's two great friends and muses, co-worker Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Catroux, are also interviewed, and for anyone like me who came of age in the 1970s, mesmerized by their glamour, they fully, delightfully reveal themselves as, respectively, his reliable, ineffably chic right hand for daytime, and his similarly manic, bad-girl playmate for the night, who could match him in self-destructive party excess.

Of course, glamour is provided in spades, beginning with a luxurious tour of the couple’s homes in Paris, Deauville and Marrakesh, which almost make the opulent lifestyle of designer Valentino, exposed in The Last Emperor, seem tacky by comparison. Runway footage displays Saint Laurent's world-changing creativity, with his timeless style innovations for women like tuxedos ("le Smoking"), rich peasant look, the safari jacket and the Mondrian-inspired mini which celebrated the nexus of fashion and art. A bridal montage shows the range of his inspirations, from Goya to a near-nude Eve he did in the 1960s and revived decades later, and everything culminates in his colossal 2002 retrospective show, staged like a sports event, featuring all of his greatest past hits.

Thoretton was also fortunate in his timing, as during the filming the pair's fabled art collection was being disassembled and packed off for auction at Christie's. We see the jaw-dropping treasures being handled by a team of very careful packers, and hear their various histories as recounted by Bergé. Then the sale begins and your jaw drops even more as an Eileen Gray chair goes for 28 million euros, never mind the Matisses. You come out of the film educated, moved and utterly dazzled.