Unravelling the Phantom Thread of a fashion icon
Although never referenced by Paul Thomas Anderson during the time of Phantom Thread’s release, it has been suggested that French filmmaker Olivier Meyrou’s Yves Saint Laurent: The Last Collections (known as Celebration in the US) served as inspiration for the Daniel Day Lewis-led drama. In many ways they work as perfect companion pieces, with Meyrou’s documentary returning to the House of Woodcock to observe the master dressmaker draining the last of his energy resources to release one final collection.
Yet it’s taken 20 years for Meyrou to release his film after Saint Laurent’s personal and professional partner, Pierre Bergé, stopped it from seeing the light of day despite making its premiere at Berlinale in 2007. And to a degree you can understand why, as the film reveals the designer looking incredibly frail and a pale shadow of his former self, and while it remains non-judgemental, it doesn’t paint the most flattering image of Bergé himself. Saint Laurent passed away the following year, and it wasn’t until Bergé had a sudden change of heart a short while before his own death in 2017 that the film could finally be shown to the public.
Shot between 1998 and 2001 Meyrou’s film captures the end of an era, a feeling crystallised by Saint Laurent during an on-camera interview: “I’m the last couture house with a living couturier.” There is no recollection of how he has changed women’s fashion over the past four decades, with the assumption made that viewers are already aware of his legacy. Gucci took ownership of the house in 1999 and a few years later Saint Laurent would eventually retire and withdraw from public view almost entirely.
Not that he hadn’t already become noticeably reclusive by the late ‘90s. Celebrating Saint Laurent’s birthday with friends and colleagues we see Bergé raise a toast and acknowledge that the creative joy of the past 40 years have also destroyed much inside the man himself. It’s something we see through Meyrou’s lens as it observes the designer often looking lifeless and disengaged with those around him, only coming to life when interacting with models and the stunning dresses, that like Reynolds Woodcock, carry his spirit while robbing him of his own.
Bergé remains a prominent figure throughout, overseeing the finer details as preparations are made for Saint Laurent’s last collection of designs. He comes across as both controlling and protective, shielding his partner from problems lower down the chain and ensuring everything runs to order. During a conversation with a feature-writing journalist Bergé comments that Saint Laurent is best left to “sleepwalk” in order to create, before acknowledging that he is far from happy. Meyrou cuts away at this point and it’s a moment that perhaps reveals more than Bergé intended. Without having the full inside track there’s no way of knowing the dynamics of their relationship but his words potentially change the context of everything we are shown.
Yves Saint Laurent: The Last Collections also offers a rare behind-the-scenes look at the dedicated craftspeople responsible for tailoring these unique, one-off pieces. Staff hover anxiously on the periphery waiting for judgement to be passed as models wearing freshly made outfits are sent in to be viewed by their boss (respectively called Mr. Saint Laurent by everyone bar Bergé). We are given a glimpse of the vaults where the dresses are stored after their fashion show run, the workers there wearing white lab-style coats and speaking of the “magic” contained within each item.
Meyrou’s film offers a compelling snapshot of an artistic genius, switching from colour to black-and-white (Saint Laurent almost shot exclusively in the latter) to contrast the growing distance between an iconic creator and the changing world around him. This is compounded further by François-Eudes Chanfrault’s science fiction-esque score that accents the uncomfortable feeling of watching a man being removed from his talent due to failing health. Not that there’s anything distasteful about the way Meyrou has captured the fading light of an artist, as it respectively upholds the mystery Saint Laurent and Bergé worked so long and hard to curate.
Yves Saint Laurent: The Last Collections can be streamed on MUBI from October 30.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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