Sometimes the story behind a film is almost as interesting as the film itself. Case in point: Olivier Meyrou’s Celebration, which was shot in 1998 and 1999 to document the final show of the House of Saint Laurent (before the YSL brand was sold to Gucci). Shown briefly in 2007, it was withdrawn from circulation at the insistence of Yves Saint Laurent’s business partner (and former romantic partner) Pierre Bergé, and is only receiving wide release now.
It doesn’t take long to fathom the reasons Bergé did not want this film released, and, personal issues aside, it’s one of the more unusual fashion documentaries ever made. You will soon realize that the title of this rather chilly film is ironic, as you find yourself immersed not in the feeling of a great designer going out in a blaze of glory, but of a sad old man whose life work is ending in a damp squib. Celebration may offer a warts-and-all look behind the scenes at a major fashion house, but Meyrou is far more interested in the warts than anything else. Saint Laurent, so died of brain cancer in 2008, frequently appears lost, confused, or oblivious to the scenes around him, while Bergé appears manipulative and cruel. Are these fair appraisals of the two men, and are the interactions we see on screen representative of their relationship at this time? I don’t know, but it’s how Meyrou chose to present them, and he makes his point of view very clear. Jean-Marc Bouzous’s cinematography underlines the generally gloomy mood of Celebration—most of it is shot in either black and white or with a desaturated color palette, which is an interesting creative choice given that most films about fashion highlight the splendor of the collections. The soundtrack, by Marie Sabbah and Sébastien Savine, is primarily electronic and frequently disconcerting, another choice that runs contrary to the typical fashion documentary.
You definitely need to know something about Saint-Laurent to get anything out of this film, so here’s a potted biography for the non-fashionistas. Yves Saint-Laurent, born in Algeria to French parents, showed his talents for design at an early age, and worked for the House of Dior before founding his own label. He became one of the greatest French designers of the twentieth century, known for innovations such as the tuxedo suit for women, the trapeze dress, and a series of dresses inspired by Mondrian paintings. Saint-Laurent was also the first couturier to create a pret-a-porter (ready to wear) line, and pioneered the use of nonwhite models in high fashion. At the height of his popularity, he was also known as a jet-setter, with multiple international residences and frequent appearances at the trendiest clubs. So he’s a very big deal within his own world, and the general tone of Celebration is best balanced with that understanding.
For those interested in fashion as either an art or an industry, Celebration is the equivalent of an all-access pass to an industry that lets you see what’s behind all the glamour. It quickly becomes clear, for instance, that almost all the physical work is done by women, yet the hard-working seamstresses who actually make the clothing that will be seen on the runway appear to be the happiest people in this film. Certainly their work is not easy, but they’re good at it, and are secure in their place within the grand process of creating fashion. For anyone who doesn’t arrive with an interest in the topic, however, Celebration will be a much tougher sell, interesting mainly for its insistent refusal, despite the title, to celebrate Saint-Laurent and his work. | Sarah Boslaugh
Celebration is distributed on DVD by KimStim, with street dates of March 17, 2020 (DVD) and March 31 (digital). The only extra on the disc is the film’s trailer.