An extraordinary film that depicts the legendary couturier Yves Saint Laurent as a dazed shadow of his former self, and whose release has been blocked for years by legal wrangling, has been premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.
Celebration, made by Olivier Meyrou, was described by one critic as "a biting documentary", which shows Saint Laurent walking around "in a daze", "losing his sharp eye", and depending "on his helpers, who treat him like a child. Shoes don't fit, silver dresses turn out grey and the seamstresses gossip but not as much as his close associates."
The behind-the-scenes film was shot over two years, mainly in the late 1990s, before Saint Laurent retired in 2002. But although it was warmly received at the festival, it may never be shown in France, or receive a theatrical release, because of objections from Saint Laurent's business partner, Pierre Bergé, president of his company.
Meyrou, 41, made Celebration with Bergé's co-operation, but towards the end of the shooting, says the director, Bergé started to distance himself from the production: "He realised I was going to take an independent stance as a documentarist. He felt he'd lost control - and these are people who build their whole career on control of the image."
When the French company MK2 announced its intention to distribute the film, Bergé warned that he would issue an injunction if it were released. Meyrou counterattacked by suing Bergé and Saint Laurent for abuse of image rights. But the case was dismissed in July 2001 due to a flaw in the original contract regarding the use of the footage.
Georges Kiejman, Bergé's lawyer, said: "It was signed by a legal adviser who did not have the authority to give permission on behalf of the fashion house.
"Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé no longer have faith in M. Meyrou." As a result, the film is still without a distributor.
Celebration sets out to demystify its subject. Emaciated and uncomfortable-looking, Saint Laurent barely speaks and chain-smokes absent-mindedly, wearing a variety of wigs and his trademark spectacles. The film shows him backstage at his Paris couture house as well as receiving a lifetime achievement award in New York where, in halting English, he declares: "Even if fashion is not entirely art, we fashion designers must behave like artists - that is to say, by sacrificing everything, even our lives."
Saint Laurent has apparently practised what he preaches, and is seen confessing to a journalist that he is prone to anxiety. Bergé, who emerges as the power behind the throne, comments on how harmful success has been for Saint Laurent, and is seen testily coaching his partner for his New York speech.
Despite the upbeat title, Celebration is something of a lament for the once all-important world of haute couture, a world as distant as the Versailles of Louis XVI. Meyrou insists his film is not intended to be critical of Saint Laurent: "The idea is to put the flesh back into the fashion world, where there isn't a great deal of flesh. We went behind the curtain to show something of Saint Laurent's unhappiness, which is pretty magnificent itself. I don't think the film destroys the myth at all."
If anything, the film comes across as a portrait of a successful but tragic figure. "I see [Saint Laurent] as an artist devoured by his own creation," says Meyrou. "It's fascinating to watch, and quite frightening."
Meyrou impressed Berlin last year with his award-winning documentary Beyond Hatred, about a gay man murdered by skinheads.Reuse content