The best fashion documentaries appeal to both our voyeuristic tendencies and status anxiety, granting us intimate access to the inner world of genius designers; the iconic couturiers who we’ve come to admire like gods. Filmed over the two years leading up to esteemed fashion house Yves Saint Laurent’s last collection before it was sold to Gucci in 1999, Olivier Meyrou’s Celebration: Yves Saint Laurent was previously barred from release. Now finally available to the public 20 years later, Celebration is as much an enigma as Saint Laurent himself, a man characterised as nearly holy by his many underlings.
For a documentary called Celebration, any celebratory spirit is scarce. The film is divided into three interwoven parts which altogether work towards providing different perspectives on the designer’s public and private self. First, there is the artistic black and white footage depicting the public persona of Yves Saint Laurent, the Legend himself. He toils at a pencil sketch of his next creation, the ash of his cigarette growing longer and longer: a master at work. He is being interviewed by a journalist in front of a leafy New York backdrop, agonising over how giving oneself completely to art means losing one’s life in it.
Next are the petit mains (the seamstresses of the fashion house, i.e. the women who actually bring the garments to life), two delightful and giddy women who are revisiting the old YSL headquarters at 5 Avenue Marceau. Together, they explore the empty building with wide-eyed wonder, referring to Saint Laurent with such reverence that a capital ‘H’ is more than implied: they visit His office and the balcony He always stood on; the window He always looked out of.
Finally, there is the reality. In vibrant super-16 film, this section includes a lot of waiting: waiting for the approval of the elusive Yves Saint Laurent, who may or may not show up. Often in his place is business partner Pierre Bergé. With a lack of documentary staples such as talking heads or voiceover, Meyrou offers fly-on-the-wall insight to the everyday comings and goings of fashion’s most prestigious houses. Yet, if we’re being honest, Celebration is not so much about Yves Saint Laurent: The Man at all. It’s all Pierre Bergé’s show.
Yves Saint Laurent is the talent, but Bergé is the business. As Saint Laurent’s partner in enterprise and life, it is no secret that Bergé has always been the driving force behind the fashion house (the pair split in 1976 but Bergé acted as the brand’s CEO until 2002). It is not until we witness him flit around barking orders, stage managing every single operation going on — even so far as telling the models the exact moment when to step out onto the catwalk — that the extent of his control is evident. This is most indicative in a shot which occurs halfway through the film. As Saint Laurent examines his pieces — a glimpse of a cinched brown coat can be seen in the reflection of the mirror as it passes him — the camera pulls focus to see Bergé watching from behind the curtain. Both have contemplation and scrutiny written on their faces. Ruling with an iron fist, Bergé has a habit of micro-managing that seems to have extended to Celebration’s portrayal of himself and Saint Laurent; it is only due to his death in 2017 that the film could be released. Meyrou’s subjects seldom talk to the camera, but when Bergé does, he is usually taking the credit for something (read: everything). He clearly loves Saint Laurent, and would do anything for him, which translates to doing everything. Because all Meyrou’s camera does is linger and observe, he does not make any deliberate statement as to whether Bergé is the villain (if there could be one) or not. Moreso, by presenting as much footage of Bergé as Saint Laurent (if not more), Meyrou only provides the mere suggestion of antagonism. If Bergé did not like how he was perceived in the documentary, then that seems to be a result of his own actions, rather than any crafty editing on the filmmaker’s part.
Watching Celebration reminded me of Frédéric Tcheng’s documentary Dior and I (2014), which followed designer Raf Simmons as he created his first collection as Creative Director of Dior. The parallels are stark: a young designer’s first collection for one of Paris’ oldest fashion houses, versus one of the 20th century’s last living couturier’s final works. However, in a manner typical of most fashion documentaries, Dior and I features Simmons as a prominent voice, taking the viewer literally every step of the way. Simmons is descriptive of his feelings and reasoning, keeping viewers clued in — we also get to see the collection in fabulous detail. In contrast, Yves Saint Laurent’s designs are hardly shown — at least, not in nearly enough detail as this fashionista would like.
Instead, Meyrou builds up a focus on moments; Saint Laurent’s French Bulldog laying unnoticed at his feet; a lingering close-up on a woman applying lipstick, obviously unimpressed with the camera being in her face. It is frustrating that I should know this woman on sight as an influential figure in the brand’s history, but her name escapes me. This is when another service typical of documentaries — labelling the key figures as they appear on screen would have been helpful. The lack of information in Celebration renders the film vague and observatory, and the film feels unsure about whether it is even celebrating Yves Saint Laurent at all. We see him receive his lifetime achievement CFDA award, which is quickly snatched up by Bergé. However, the purely observational style appeals to our most voyeuristic and worshipful instincts. It is a frustrating, yet intriguing character study: you are forced to make your own assumptions. As in any religious experience, seeing is believing.
Celebration: Yves Saint Laurent will be showing as part of the 2019 Alliance Française French Film Festival, which runs across multiple Australian capital cities from 6 March to 10 April.
Check out the full line-up here.
Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen screen tragic from Melbourne, Australia. She is currently undertaking an Honours thesis on Screen & Cultural Studies and has written for Junkee, 4:3, The Big Issue, Screen Queens and more. Follow her at @teencineteq and @theclairencew