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.”
Behind the Scenes of Saint Laurent
“I’m often very disappointed in cinematic depictions of nightclubs. You can hear the dialogue too clearly, or the extras are no good. So I worked hard on those things.” Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
“You always hear that Yves transformed women. So I tried to create a scene to incarnate that idea. This client, I feel like she loses 15 years just in the acting. It’s about the way she’s being looked at.” Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
“This is before the famous ’76 collection. My costume designer, Anaïs Romand, redid 35 pieces or so. That’s a lot—the budgets in haute couture are much bigger than in the movies.” Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
“Gaspard and Louis Garrel, who plays Jacques de Bascher. Yves had many lovers, but this was a little more impassioned. Jacques was a difficult character to cast—this kind of dandy does not exist anymore. Louis gives it a contemporary spin.” Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
“I was initially not crazy about casting Jérémie Renier as Pierre Bergé, but when I did screen tests with them together, it just appeared that he was Pierre. The two were actually very close already. When we start the film, Pierre and Yves have already been together as a couple for years, so you have to have that familiarity.” Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
“Lea Seydoux as Yves’ muse Loulou de la Falaise. She’s actually very far from Loulou, who was much more excitable. But Lea is a modern Loulou—aristocratic and a fashion icon.” Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.