“Celebration” is out gay director Olivier Meyrou’s beguiling documentary about the late Yves Saint Laurent and his business partner and lover, Pierre Bergé. The film was shot over three years, starting in 1998, when Saint Laurent was the last living original fashion house couturier. It ends with him announcing his retirement.
The film, however, was almost never released. Meyrou had a protracted, 15-year legal battle with Bergé — who originally proposed he make the film. But Bergé never signed a release for the use of his image, and Meyrou sued.
With Bergé’s 2017 passing, “Celebration” is now hitting theaters. In contrast to the recent biopics “Yves Saint Laurent” and “Saint Laurent,” or the documentary “L’Amour Fou,” “Celebration” provides a different, arguably more revealing portrait of the late fashion icon and his partner. An observational documentary, it shows Saint Laurent at work and Bergé controlling things behind the scenes. While there are some fabulous fashions on display, the best moments are the unexpected ones, such as Bergé remarking, “Probably I have a part of that” when Saint Laurent accepts a lifetime achievement award.
Recalling Bergé’s outreach to him about making the documentary, Meyrou, via WhatsApp, said, “I knew nothing about fashion. But I couldn’t refuse it. They are icons and big figures in the gay community. I entered the house of couture at the end of the 20th century, but it looked early-20th or late-19th century the way they were working. It was like a French tradition, already lost to history. I really felt that I was in a different time. I was amazed because Yves Saint Laurent was a legend, a myth in French history, but he was a common figure at work.”
Meyrou considered Saint Laurent’s iconic status in making a deliberate decision about how to present him in “Celebration.”
“When I was shooting, the closer I came to Yves Saint Laurent the more I could feel vibrations and this weird energy,” he explained. “He was completely by himself — there but not there. I got the idea of filming the workers and Berge in color and Yves Saint Laurent in black and white to give him a different status. He was an historical figure.”
The documentary chronicles Saint Laurent completing his last collection — though Meyrou didn’t know specifically that the designer was about to retire. The director focused on what he described as the “specifics” of Saint Laurent’s story, not on the fashion.
“Saint Laurent was exhausted after 40 years of creation,” Meyrou said. “For me, it was the story of the ending of the designer — a bit like ‘Phantom Thread.’ I wanted to show creation as a cost on the artist. No one knew he would stop, but everyone knew it was the end. They wanted it to continue and survive as long as possible. The house was like a family. That was what I was observing, and why I didn’t want to do a ‘fashion movie.’ That story was so specific, unusual, and extreme that this is what I wanted to show.”
The director was pleased by the latitude he enjoyed during filming.
“They were great because they never said, ‘You are too close to Yves Saint Laurent,’ or ‘He’s too fragile,’” Meyrou said. “I h ad total freedom, and that is so rare. This is the film I had to do.”
A shot of Bergé standing behind Saint Laurent as he is looking at the designs in a collection underscores the influence the businessman had behind the scenes.
“They were a gay couple who had been together more than 40 years,” Meyrou observed. “There are ups and downs. Bergé was really overprotective of Saint Laurent, and Bergé was the exterior of their world. Saint Laurent, when I met with him, was by himself at the studio or the apartment. He had retired from the active world. They were yin and yang — one eagle with two heads.”
He added, “Some people think ‘Celebration’ is a good guy/ bad guy relationship, but it’s not that at all. It’s a story of love. Love is not always easy, and their child was the house of couture. All their energy went to the house. It was the cement.”
Saint Laurent’s remove from business considerations is something Meyrou felt distinguished his career from that of today’s fashion designers.
“He’s an icon from a different world,” the director said. “A film on fashion today, you can’t forget about the business side, but with Yves Saint Laurent the business side was beyond the artist. It was the art of Saint Laurent. He was like a painter of the 20th century with his atelier. It’s about creation and freedom. There is also a sense of tragedy. His story is tragic. He wanted to make dresses when he was six years old. He’s gay and feminine and had to struggle to achieve his dream. He created one of the biggest houses of couture in the world. It’s a very powerful story.”
Despite the bitterness he felt while the film’s release was blocked, Meyrou said he screened the documentary for Bergé before his death and that Bergé “loved it.”
“I don’t know if I would have released the film without Bergé seeing it,” the director said. “It’s intrusive to do a film on someone’s life. For 15 years, it has been extremely difficult for me to have the feeling that Bergé was rejecting the film. The film was a labor of love. When he saw the film finally, it settled things and he realized that I didn’t harm them.”
Meyrou added, “There’s no revenge. When I started the film’s promotion, I had anger still but now with time going by and Berge being dead I see things more calmly.”
CELEBRATION | Directed by Olivier Meyrou | KimStim | Opens Oct. 2 | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. | filmforum.org