There's good cause to shake the biopic form out of its exhaustively linear, birth-to-death rut, and Bertrand Bonello's "Saint Laurent" — starring Gaspard Ulliel as the storied French designer — valiantly tries.
It's a coolly rendered, time-hopping dissection of artistic temperament and pop existentialism bracketed by the couturier's late '60s flowering as a transformative figure and his '70s descent into drugs.
Bonello and co-screenwriter Thomas Bidegain trust that you know why Yves Saint Laurent was game-changing and scandalous. (A little pre-viewing research helps.) That leaves lots of time for intimate, drawn-out scenes of dress creation and recreational indulgence but little in the way of dramatic purpose. Only a split-screen moment with the man's collections being modeled opposite archival footage of turbulent 1968 protests suggests a point of view, but what exactly it is seems unclear.
That doesn't mean Bonello's visual acuity with bodies — the genius and his many muses (including Lea Seydoux as Loulou De La Falaise), his loves (Jeremie Renier as longtime partner Pierre Berge), his employees and his hangers-on — in cloistered yet tasteful surroundings isn't occasionally entrancing, as is star Ulliel's monkish haughtiness.
The final act even threads in scenes with Helmut Berger as the older Saint Laurent that, intercut with the preparations for his rejuvenating 1976 show, speak to something passionate, fleeting and mournful about the life span of the artistic process.
But it's a late stab at draping something meaningful over a mostly jumbled array of biographical swatches.
MPAA rating: R, for graphic nudity, strong sexual situations, substance abuse, language
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Playing: Arclight, Hollywood; Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles