Cannes Check 2014: Bertrand Bonello’s ‘Saint Laurent’

Welcome back to Cannes Check, In Contention's annual preview of the films in Competition at next month's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 14. Taking on different selections every day, we'll be examining what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Jane Campion's jury. Next up: the second of four French entries: Bertrand Bonello's “Saint Laurent.” 

The director: Bertrand Bonello (French, 45 years old). Born in Nice and now based in Paris and Montreal, Bonello began his career as a classical musician — a background that makes sense, given the stately refinement and sensory elevation of his filmmaking. (He still serves as his own composer.) Which is not to say his work is soft, testing as it does formal and erotic boundaries: scholars of contemporary French cinema tend to group him with the likes of Gaspar Noé in the bracket of New French Extremism. He made his debut feature, “Something Organic,” in 1998, following it up three years later with his critical breakthrough “The Pornographer.” His fifth feature, 2011's “House of Tolerance,” was his most widely distributed, though “Saint Laurent” should change that.

The talent: “Saint Laurent” serves up Bonello's starriest ensemble to date, with Gaspard Ulliel (“A Very Long Engagement,” “Hannibal Rising”) taking the title role. Key supporting roles are played by Jeremie Renier (in his first reteaming with Bonello since “The Pornographer”), Louis Garrel and, fresh from her Palme d'Or victory last year, Lea Seydoux. Helmut Berger, Dominique Sanda and actress-director Valerie Bruni Tedeschi (an unpopular Competition entrant last year) are also on board. As is US indie regular Brady Corbet — playing, I can't resist noting, a character IMDb refers to as “Homme d'affaires Squibb.” (Corbet also pops up in Competition in Olivier Assayas' “Clouds of Sils Maria.”

Bonello co-wrote the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain, whose credits include Joachim Lafosse's “Our Children” and Jacques Audiard's “A Prophet” and “Rust and Bone.” Producer Eric Altmayer, meanwhile, is closely associated with the work of Francois Ozon. Bonello is sticking with regular cinematographer Josee Deshaies and editor Fabrice Rouaud. Ace production designer Katia Wyszkop (“Van Gogh,” “Farewell My Queen”) and costume designer Anais Romand (returning from “House of Tolerance”) will have plenty to work with here.

The pitch: Yves Saint Laurent biopics are like the proverbial London buses: you wait ages for one to come along, and all of a sudden two show up at once. Okay, maybe you weren't waiting for one in the first place. Either way, in film terms, the late French fashion designer — who died of brain cancer, aged 72, in 2008 — in this year's Truman Capote. Jalil Lespert's “Yves Saint Laurent,” a less starry project below and above the line, opened in France in January, playing at the Berlinale next month; it received scattered praise, most of it for Pierre Niney's lead performance, but didn't set the highest bar for Bonello's team to clear.

It certainly didn't make entirely clear what was so compelling about Saint Laurent's life that it warrants this level of scrutiny; hopefully, Bonello's 135-minute biopic will dig a little deeper. A vastly influential figure in haute couture, the designer's rise to fame — via an apprenticeship to Christian Dior — was swift and heady, with familiar forays into substance abuse and psychological breakdown. His longtime lover and business partner, Pierre Berge, will be played by Renier. Their fifty-year relationship, which culminated in civil union shortly before Saint Laurent's death, was the narrative spine of Lespert's film; that looks to be the case here too. 

The pedigree: Not yet on the auteur A-list occupied by a Competition compatriot like Olivier Assayas, Bonello remains a divisive talent: ornately gifted to some critics, irksomely indulgent to others. The florid excesses of “House of Tolerance” may have earned it a reverent niche following over the last three years, but it was greeted with more jeers and cheers at its Cannes premiere. The festival, however, has remained loyal: “The Pornographer” played in Critics' Week in 2001, where it won a FIPRESCI prize: he's since been in Competition twice, leaving empty-handed on both occasions.

The buzz: With its celebrity-driven subject matter and all-star cast, “Saint Laurent” is plainly Bonello's most mainstream venture to date, and one of the more commercial, distributor-friendly foreign titles in Competition — though its status as the year's second YSL biopic means critics aren't exactly champing at the bit to see it. The “been there, done that” factor would be more of a disadvantage, however, if the first film had either a formidable critical reputation or equivalent marquee value. The French distributor was originally planning to release it immediately after its Cannes debut, before bumping it to October, ensuring a bit more distance between the projects.

The odds: For a selection of the aforementioned reasons, “Saint Laurent” is being taken more seriously as red carpet fodder than as a Palme d'Or contender; despite Bonello's standing, some were surprised that it was even included in Competition. Jigsaw Lounge has the film near the back of the pack, with odds of 33-1; bar some kind of revelatory turn from Ulliel, it seems unlikely the jury will pore over this one for too long, whatever its relative quality. 

Next in Cannes Check, we'll be sizing up the film that is currently the bookies' favorite for the Palme d'Or: Nuri Bilge Ceylan's “Winter Sleep.”