French filmmaker Olivier Meyrou was invited in 1998 to film what was to be the final collection of Yves Saint Laurent under the courtier’s name. What was to be a Celebration of a forty-year dominance in the haute couture industry, in turn, depicted the sombre demise of one of fashion’s most influential houses. Of course, the title of the documentary is completely tongue in cheek. This documentary is a claustrophobic, anxiety-steeped obituary of the failing ‘last of the great courtiers’. Following filming, Pierre Bergé, the business partner and former lover of Saint Laurent sued Meyrou over the documentary and the footage was canned until 2018.
The artistry of Yves Saint Laurent cannot be denied. A man who was responsible for many of fashion’s most iconic designs such as Le Smoking Jacket, the safari-suit and Mondrian dress, he also revolutionised modern fashion with the introduction of the Saint Laurent Rive Gauche ready-to-wear collection in 1966. What we know largely of Saint Laurent resonates from his hedonistic success in the 1970s, where he dressed everyone from Bianca Jagger to Catherine Deneuve. Celebration shows little of this past celebrity persona and instead captures an ailing man, towards the end of his careers, looking for an escape.
Literally no one appears happy in this documentary. You can feel the stagnation of fraught relationships in each scene. This makes the film, at times, difficult to watch. The imposing Bergé micro-manages Saint Laurent and his team at every move. Explosive outbursts are never far away and we witness Bergé’s controlling character fly off the handle. In two instances we see him arguing with women and on both occasions he raises his hand, holding their wrists or blocking their speech aggressively. It is no wonder why Bergé fought so hard for Celebration not to see the light of day.
Behind the scenes, the workers exude palpable nervous energy as they hurriedly fix hems and book fit models. The employees, mostly women, scarcely make eye contact with anyone and appear highly stressed when they realised they are in the line of the camera. You can physically see employees take large nauseous gulps as they wait in the wings of the house’s meeting rooms. No one seems at ease yet everyone exhibits earnest adoration for their creative leader.
The cameras are granted access to the clinical white walls of the YSL archives. Each storage cupboard is vast and as the doors are wound back we catch a sacred glimpse into the decades of technicolor couture housed within its walls. A true delight. It is fascinating to watch Bergé nonchalantly flick through archival fashion illustrations and design developments featuring many of twentieth-century most influential designs. He discusses candidly his desire to respect Saint Laurent’s legacy and safeguard it for many years to come. Although Saint Laurent himself seems focused on the future, the documentary remains a stark reminder of the designers own mortality and cultural significance with the fashion industry.
Yves Saint Laurent appears disinterested, almost lifeless throughout the majority of filming. Curiously he also seems to have his very own sinister synth horror soundtrack. He spends the majority of the time on camera spent slumped over, head haunched with a lit cigarette trailing ash. Saint Laurent had a history of drug dependency and mental health issues but it is unclear whether he was experiencing any underlying issues during the filming of the documentary. In a rare glimpse into his character, he speaks candidly about his anxieties, saying he is now choosing to ‘work in joy’ which seems unbelievable amongst all the apparent misery depicted on screen. Celebration offers an insight into the myth of the legendary designer Yves Saint Laurent but does not try to explain what made him this way. The documentary instead leaves us with more questions than answers.
Celebration offers light relief from the stress between Saint Laurent and, well, every one by offering a candid insight into the world of haute couture. A sea of women dressed in immaculate white lab coats haunch over seams, working together to create Saint Laurent’s vision. Interspersed throughout the documentary are two warm and highly skilled seamstresses (we are not introduced to the women formally) who excitedly gush about their involvement in the creations of a number of YSL’s iconic designs. One excitedly screams, ‘that’s all our work’ and beams with pride as she points to her work working down the runway. Although Meyrou failed to fully explore the darkness behind Saint Laurent’s peculiar behaviours, Celebration brilliantly showcases, albeit briefly, the powerhouse of women creatives behind one of the most significant fashion designers ever.
Celebration is available on VOD on March 31st. You can also buy it here.
by Casci Ritchie
Casci (she/her) is an independent dress historian specialising in fashion, film and consumer cultures. Her true great loves – film and fashion – began when she watched her first film noir, The Big Sleep, as a teenager and fell in love Bacall and Bogie hook line and sinker. Some of her favourite films include Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Beetlejuice, Double Indemnity and Cry Baby. You can find her over on Twitter & her blog www.casciritchie.com.