An era ended when Yves Saint Laurent retired in 2002: Although there are still a meager handful of designers working in couture (as opposed to the much less costly ready-to-wear), Saint Laurent was surely the last of the greatest. But perhaps even more unsettling than the idea of no new Saint Laurent garments, ever, is the fact that Saint Laurent has taken with him a way of looking at clothing that goes beyond scrutinizing the placement of a dart or the way a swath of fabric drapes -- his gift was a muscular intertwining of instinct and craftsmanship, of artistry and impulse, that goes unmatched today, even among our most talented designers.
Two French documentaries by David Teboul (they make their American debut at Film Forum in New York this week, and with luck, moviegoers in other cities will have a chance to see them in the coming months) clue us in to Saint Laurent's distinctive way of seeing, as well as illuminate his charmingly old-fashioned and organic mode of working. "Yves Saint Laurent: His Life and Times" (which is essentially a biography) and "Yves Saint Laurent: 5, Avenue Marceau, 75116 Paris" (a chronicle of one of the designer's last collections) aren't spectacular documentaries in terms of either their craftsmanship or their clarity -- if you don't already have a little background on Saint Laurent, you might find yourself a bit confused by the truncated storytelling of "His Life and Times," in particular.
Yet the two movies are fascinating and valuable pieces of work: They're visual tone poems that simultaneously tell the story of a great and mysterious artist and grab the last trailing threads of a quickly vanishing era. Teboul received permission to enter the atelier (or workroom) of the notoriously reclusive Saint Laurent to record the genesis of a collection, with "5, Avenue Marceau" as the result. He then went on to make the second documentary, "His Life and Times," which is less intimate but more cleanly structured. What's lovely about the two documentaries, taken either together or as separate pieces of work, is that they're not made for "fashion people." Teboul treats us all, men and women of any nation, as if we were French men: That is, he assumes that we take an interest in fashion the way French men do, not just because fashion showcases the human body but because it's fascinating to watch how it changes along with the culture around it.
"His Life and Times" includes clips of a Saint Laurent fashion show from the 1960s, in which a male viewer gazes rapturously at the women strolling the runway. Sure, the models are lookers, and that's no doubt part of their appeal to him. But I wonder if he'd wear the same look of engaged delight if the women were stark naked? The spectacle of the clothes is surely part of the sexual illusion. Elsewhere in the movie, Saint Laurent himself, in interview footage from the early 1970s, says that "seduction has replaced elegance." It's a brash, fashion-designery statement that makes a good sound bite, but there's a nugget of truth within its glossy shell: Seduction is often a natural component of elegance, as we can see in both the traditional tuxedo as worn by, say, Fred Astaire (whose elegance was so heightened it was a kind of eroticism), and the softened version that Saint Laurent himself perfected, famously known as le smoking.
Where do ideas like le smoking come from? What kind of man comes up with this stuff? The one we see in "His Life and Times" -- which includes interview footage from 2001 as well as clips of interviews given by Saint Laurent throughout his more than 40-year career -- is both reserved and dauntingly confident. His longtime business partner (and, for many years, his lover as well), Pierre Bergé, refers to Saint Laurent as a megalomaniac -- but he says it with a mix of fondness and matter-of-factness that assures us it's not an insult. In both the contemporary footage and the vintage stuff, Laurent never looks comfortable talking about himself or his work: He bows his head; he averts his gaze, looking anywhere but into the eyes of the interviewer. That may be pure shyness, but it could also be the mark of a man who lives and works so deeply within his own mind that tiptoeing into the real world even once in a while is just too much of a shivery jolt.
Saint Laurent, now in his mid-60s, has never had particularly robust health. He has been known to suffer bouts of depression. In the contemporary footage, we see him clad in trim dark suits that foster an illusion of slimness rather than puffiness. He smokes cigarette after cigarette over the course of the two movies. It's easy to match this quiet but fiercely instinctual human being with the younger Saint Laurent we see in the older footage: "His Life and Times" skip-skates lightly over some of the more dramatic episodes of Saint Laurent's life (particularly the way his first employer, the house of Dior, fired him in 1962 as he lay in bed after a nervous breakdown brought on by a stint in the French army, the role of soldier being one that he was obviously unsuited for). But Teboul does give us some sense of the anger and protectiveness Bergé felt at the time, filling in some less obvious angles of the story. It was Bergé who had to tell Saint Laurent he'd been fired. Bergé also speaks bitterly of the rich, "famous" French businessmen who wouldn't back Saint Laurent in the early days, but there's no gloating pride in his words, no "we proved them wrong" bravado. Again, what you hear is an iron-hard ring of protectiveness forged over time: Even today, Bergé seems outraged and hurt that anyone could ever have failed to believe in Saint Laurent.
And from what we see in these two documentaries, even we want to protect Saint Laurent. We hear him talk about how, at the age of 14, he played at being a designer, going so far as to draw up invoices for the imaginary ladies who'd bought his designs. (Now that's follow-through.) He speaks of being happiest when he was a child, among his family, growing up in Algeria. His elderly mother appears in "His Life and Times," wearing a powder-blue jacket and a tremendous amount of eye makeup but looking almost supernaturally youthful in that inimitable French way. She speaks of how lonely and miserable young Yves was when he was sent away to school, of how he couldn't fit in with the other boys. Of course he didn't fit in: No man who loves women as much as Saint Laurent clearly does could be happy when deprived of their company.
And that aspect of Saint Laurent's character pops into focus in "5, Avenue Marceau." Teboul shows us how Saint Laurent's ideas move from sketch to muslin to finished garment, brought to life by a coterie of scurrying, efficient seamstresses and assistants. The seamstresses work in one room, pinning the garments-in-progress onto the fitting models. The models then stride into the next room, where Saint Laurent and his team (among them his longtime friend and muse Loulou de la Falaise, a spindly, good-natured presence in dark trousers) await. Saint Laurent offers suggestions and feedback as well as, occasionally, seemingly capricious disapproval. But he also exclaims over both the girls and the clothes -- in some cases, not even he himself can distinguish between which delights him more, which is probably precisely the point. He may be in the process of creating a vision, but the woman inside the vision is always its heart and soul. (It's also worth noting that Saint Laurent was the first designer to use black women as models, in the early 1960s, and he speaks so adoringly of their carriage and the "colors on their skin" that you sense his puzzlement that no one had cared or thought to include them before.)
One by one, the garments take shape, but they don't come easy: They're tweaked with painstaking precision that exhausts not just the seamstresses and the assistants but Saint Laurent himself -- it's easy to see, from this late collection, why the man knew it was time to retire. Still, each successful dress brings with it a sharp and mysterious pang of pleasure -- a little jolt of "What's this, now?" The models parade before Saint Laurent in printed silks and chiffons, looking like pieces of candy (very tall ones). Saint Laurent has had a series of French bulldogs, all of them named Moujik. The latest incarnation of Moujik is here, too, trotting into and out of the frame like a piglet ghost. (At one point he demolishes a stuffed teddy bear with snorting glee.)
Finally, the garments are almost completed. One of Saint Laurent's chief seamstresses, a woman named Colette, accompanies the model as she strides out in a snugly fitted evening dress that flares into a soft umbrella at the hem. "Colette," Saint Laurent says, drinking in the unquestionably ravishing vision before him, "I asked you for a sausage and you've made me a masterpiece!"
His delight in the dress is palpable and deep, although you wouldn't call his pleasure anything as obvious as exhilaration. In fact, there's nothing jubilant about "5, Avenue Marceau" at all, which probably explains why it's so quietly potent. The picture is wrapped in a haze of melancholy, as if we're watching a swath of history -- the history of couture, specifically -- winding slowly away from us. Teboul's two movies leave a waft of perfume in their wake: Sweetly scented and very human, they remind us that there's no such thing as genius without sweat.