The delicate, bespectacled visage of Yves Saint Laurent is one of the most memorable and celebrated images in the world of fashion. The Algerian-born French designer was a tortured genius, his creative life punctuated by periods of intense depression and substance abuse. But at its core was an enduring relationship with Pierre Berger, his one-time lover and business manager, who made YSL arguably the richest and most influential of the French fashion houses.

That relationship is the subject of a standout documentary at this year’s Sydney French Film Festival – L’Amour Fou (Crazy Love) – by director Pierre Thoretton. It’s not only a visual feast of fashion, art and some of the world’s most beautiful people but a superbly crafted insight into a complex man and his complex relationships.

Piet Mondrian dress

The documentary opens with Yves Saint Laurent’s poignant resignation news conference in 2002, Christian Dior’s protege announcing that he’s turning his back on almost half a century in the fashion world because he feels that he’s lost his mojo. As the film unfolds, we gradually discover why through the anecdotes of Berger and some of YSL’s closest confidantes, including two now faded beauties who were once his muses.  Loulou De La Falaise is the daughter of a French Marquis and Anglo-Irish fashion model who was constantly at Yves’s side during his cocaine-addled forays into the night at Regine’s and Studio 54. It shows. Similarly with Betty Catroux, the half Brazilian daughter of an American diplomat, whose anecdotes about her own partying with YSL emanate exclusively from behind a pair of large sunglasses (designer, bien sur).

But it’s from Pierre Berger that we gain the greatest insight into YSL’s character, the angels that fuelled his dazzling creativity, the demons that made him a virtual recluse towards the end of his life. The two met in 1958 and became inseparable, aside from a brief period when YSL’s substance abuse got the better of him. Berger was the hard-nosed businessman who built the empire and allowed Yves to give full rein to his extraordinary creativity. All of those creations are on display in the film, the 1965 Piet Mondrian Dress, the 1967 Le Smoking Tuxedo jacket, plus all those ethnically-inspired collections worn by ethnic models – a YSL first – that brought cat-walk audiences to their feet in raptures for more than 40 years.

Le Smoking hot

Yves was more than just the fragile King of Haute Couture. He was the first designer to see the potential of the mass market in ready-to-wear and his pret-a-porter collections eventually produced more revenue than his headline fantaisies. Their vast wealth enabled Yves and Pierre to accumulate grand houses in Paris, Normandy and Morocco and an astonishing array of “stuff”, including works by Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian. Pierre Berger’s decision to sell off the collection after YSL’s death in 2008 forms the structural centrepiece of the film, the sumptuous interiors of the couple’s homes lovingly documented before the removalists do their work and the whole lot goes under the hammer at Christies. On the first day of the auction, just one work -a Matisse – sold for a record 32-million Euros. Not your average garage sale, that’s for sure.

Berger reveals that the sale – the proceeds of which have gone to AIDS research – wouldn’t have been possible were Yves still alive. He was simply too attached to his possessions and couldn’t have lived without them. So by film’s end, L’Amour Fou is also a modern-day parable on a couple of age-old themes; that “money and possessions don’t buy happiness” and “you can’t take it with you”. There’s something about Yves in all of us.

Graham Davis