It begins with a close-up of a hand holding a pencil to paper in a grainy 16mm monochrome—digitally preserved, but with its flaws left intact. The hand hesitates, draws a line, then recoils again for a long moment. Finally, the shavings are blown away, and the outline of a dress is revealed. The camera tilts up to a deer-in-headlights Yves Saint Laurent, granting an intruder permission to enter his space.
In 1998, French documentarian Olivier Meyrou was hired by Saint Laurent’s business partner and former lover Pierre Bergé to document YSL’s final haute couture collection before he retired and sold the company to the Gucci Group. Meyrou documented the house of YSL until 2001, following its legendary namesake in and out of 5 Avenue Marceau with unprecedented access. But when Meyrou refused to preview the footage, Bergé effectively suppressed the project—a successful move in part because he’d never signed a release. Later, on the occasion of a public screening at the Berlin Film Festival in 2007, Bergé responded with a cease-and-desist. Since then, the film has been a conversation piece in fashion-film circles, until Bergé finally approved its release in 2015, two years before his death and nearly a decade after YSL’s passing. It’s here now, and the question remains: what precisely did Bergé want to keep hidden?
“You must have assertions in order for them to become certitudes,” claims Bergé, while showing off YSL’s original pantsuit designs. It’s in dismantling these assertions where Meyrou’s unholy object begins. The cheekily titled Celebration is now revealed as a real-life zombie movie, a late ’90s vérité portrait of a living legend refashioned into a scrappy, thoroughly contemporary collage of deference and decay. Unlike recent portraits of Saint Laurent as a magnetic figure—as in Bertrand Bonello’s sublimely decadent Saint Laurent and Jalil Lespert’s frictionless Yves Saint Laurent, both in 2014—Meyrou’s is defiantly uncommercial, and thrives on present tense hesitation and doubt. It emphasizes the uncanniness and unknowability of its aging genius subject, even as he is doted upon and feared.
An epigraph reminds us that the era of the grand couturier is over. The house is creaky and falling apart. Without timestamps or talking heads, Meyrou pointedly avoids historicizing his subject, knowing that YSL’s reputation precedes him. Instead, he moves in nonlinear fashion, shifting from black-and-white to color and back again, observing the suit-clad YSL at work and hardly working. In between fittings, photo shoots, galas, and an extended interview with a French journalist, YSL stumbles down the stairs and knocks over some fabrics, only to lift himself back up again toward his signature angular grace. His jaw restless, mouth agog, he lets his cigarettes burn to a long, flaccid ash. “Yves should be left asleep,” Bergé tells the reporter, flanked by a rooftop vista of Central Park. “He mustn’t be woken.” Death is always in Celebration’s peripheral vision: We see a somnambulant man who has already sacrificed everything for his work and whose dependents must constantly guide him in the proper direction before he expires.
While hardly a snuff film, Celebration often approaches the feeling of a séance. François-Eudes Chanfrault, a frequent collaborator of the horror director Alexandre Aja who also passed away in 2016, provides a hair-raising ambient score that whines, surges or pops as soon as YSL is near or on screen. The impression is like being in the presence of an alien object teleported in from outer space. As if to underscore this, in one scene we watch two seamstresses at work in 5 Marceau idly discussing the potential existence of UFOs. As a model is doted upon by several women stylists, the soundtrack suddenly floats with a polyphony of male French voices to incantatory effect, as if to signal the specters of real power just out of the frame.
As has been well documented, Bergé was YSL’s manager, assistant and watchdog, and here we see him as both protector and sycophant, the lone figure willing to look him in the eye. Spry, tense and focused, he is every bit YSL’s foil. In one extraordinary shot, YSL purses his lips, lost in thought, as the camera racks focus to reveal a dagger-eyed Bergé across the room behind him, mimicking his facial expression unwittingly. With its granular depiction of a dyspeptic artistic genius and the reluctant, deeply symbiotic relationship with his right hand, Celebration bears more than a passing resemblance to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017). In the years since the film was first banned, Meyrou held private screenings for the likes of Gus Van Sant and Bonello, and it‘s possible that Anderson got his own glimpse, with its intimate views of a discreetly hierarchical, highly gendered era of fashion.
When YSL isn’t on screen, much of Celebration is dedicated to fitting and fussing about Saint Laurent couture, the rigor and anger it takes to make beautiful things. Two former members of YSL’s all-female staff provide an ecstatic tour of the company’s Avenue Marceau home, now all but empty, waxing nostalgic on what was a career high point—while in the workplace, it’s crowded with aides and designers, lamenting the lack of finishing touches, the improper fits, and endless other qualifications. "It takes patience, that's all,” one says. “But I've lost my patience.” Later, we see Bergé visiting a demonstration by a dressmakers’ union against a waning job market, signaling solidarity while lambasting the state of the industry. “Just refuse to make those shitty dresses,” he tells them. “You must never hire losers to do collections.”
Celebration might best be enjoyed by those who live for the teleprompter gaffes and umbrella-on-the-tarmac moments, those uncanny mistakes that reveal the fallacy of power in an era in which an increasing number of neoliberal empires are fading into decline before our very eyes. Meyrou’s film is a send-up of French conservatism, the brick-layered protection of cultural heritage (patrimoine) that made a business like Saint Laurent possible, amid the twilight of one of France’s greatest cultural exports. At one point, Bergé takes part in a ceremony to place a gold pyramid cap on the Luxor Obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, as intended by Ramses II centuries before. As we follow him up a scaffold, Bergé makes a distinction between patronage and heritage. The former “doesn’t interest me...it's like [selling] brands of laundry detergent,” while the latter “continues on forever.” Despite this, he believes the obelisk is poorly positioned. “It was placed by people who were probably great, but didn't know what they were doing.” Meyrou’s film invites us within the halls of power to discover that the foundations have long been broken.