A fashion-world documentary resolutely stripped of frills, Olivier Meyrou's Celebration is a portrait of haute couture legend Yves Saint-Laurent unplugged, as it were - some might even say, unstitched. Perhaps too distant from its subject to qualify exactly as a warts-and-all portrait, Meyrou's film nevertheless demystifies its subject, portraying saint-Laurent as a fragile monarch tenuously reigning over a tradition-bound kingdom that is beginning to look as archaic as Versailles.
Meyrou's approach has caused ructions with Saint-Laurent's company, so much so that legal action has been threatened if the film is released. Sales outside France, however, may not be out of the question. Following the success of Meyrou's very different documentary Beyond Hatred in Berlin last year, Celebration - premiered in this year's Berlin Panorama - looks set for a healthy life on the festival circuit, especially at events with documentary, gay or even rag-trade interests.
Photographed on video, the film was shot between 1998 and 2001, and concentrates on those moments at which the Saint-Laurent empire - and particularly the haute couture house over which he reigned until his retirement in 2002 - celebrates itself and its quasi-royal status.
The film covers catwalk shows, a New York fashion event at which Saint-Laurent receives a lifetime achievement award, and a Paris event at which Saint-Laurent's long-time business (and sometime personal) partner Pierre Berge - a prominent cultural patron - places a pyramidion (capstone) on the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde.
While the film captures some of the glitz and elegance of the haute couture world - with glimpses of such notables as supermodel Laetitia Casta and Loulou de la Falaise, Saint-Laurent's muse and designer - Celebration also offers insight into the more workaday side of the business. Backstage moments include a vibrant sequence in which several garrulous middle-aged ladies from Saint-Laurent's staff wax nostalgic as they visit the firm's former premises.
Saint-Laurent himself appears as a detached, fragile figure, absent-mindedly smoking, occasionally adjusting a button, but generally looking vulnerable and vacant: he oddly resembles Andy Warhol, both because the designer shares his enigmatic guru status and because Saint-Laurent similarly appears almost to be disguised as himself, hiding behind a trademark uniform of bouffant wigs and outsize spectacles.
The power behind the throne is visibly Berge, irascible but also tenderly solicitous: at the New York show, he coaches Saint-Laurent on his speech, advising him not to lean over like an old man.
Saint-Laurent's most revealing moments come in an interview with a New York journalist, in which he confesses to unhappiness, and in his award speech, delivered in cracked English, in which he says that designers should be prepared to sacrifice everything. Meyrou leaves it to us to imagine what has been sacrificed.
An elegant, sometimes eerie film, Celebration does not editorialise: its only implicit commentary is a futuristic electronic score, which suggests that Saint-Laurent is something of an extra-terrestrial being.
A tender, more melancholic work than its title would imply, Celebration should not be construed as a debunking of its subject, more as a gentle lament for an institution fading into the sunset. 'It's all about rock 'n' roll!' comments an excitable model, but a world less rock 'n' roll than Saint-Laurent's is hard to imagine.