Saint Laurent On Set

“Saint Laurent.” Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

Three years ago, two films about the life of Yves Saint Laurent went into production in France around the same time. One had the backing of Pierre Bergé, the designer’s longtime lover and keeper of all things Yves. The second he publicly damned, and even threatened a lawsuit. Bergé’s horse won the race to the big screen last year, while the second premiered stateside this past weekend. These factors may have worked against director Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, but in fact they have conspired to make his version the stranger, more stylish and powerful film. “I don’t know if you’ve heard that Pierre Bergé is a control freak,” says Bonello, who took pains to avoid seeing the competing film. “With his help, we may have had access to a couple of the original dresses. But then you also have him looking over your shoulder. So we had a few problems, yes. But we also had freedom.”

Whereas the first biopic was straightforward in its approach, Bonello transforms the conventions of the genre as thoroughly as Saint Laurent did women. Picking up after the designer had already reached his apex, after the famous le Smoking collection in 1966—“I was not interested in that rise-and-fall structure,” Bonello says—the life and work of Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) is rendered impressionistically, in episodes that dive into the lows—drugs, depression, artistic failure, a dangerous affair with the bon vivant Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel)—so as to make the high of the successes that much more potent. More impressively, Bonello pulls off one of the more difficult directorial feats—he manages to film the genius of Saint Laurent at work. “The arrival of an idea is the hardest thing to show,” Bonello says. “Usually, that stuff is so fake.” But, ultimately, true genius is a burden, and eventually takes its toll. “Yves is fragile. And I wanted to go deep into what it cost to be him everyday.”