In the penultimate scene of Bertrand Bonello’s “Saint Laurent,” the year is 1977 and a group of French journalists are informed of rumors that the titular designer has died. Upon hearing this, they quickly begin readying his obituary and formulating a headline. The group all rattle off quick and humorous soundbites to summarize the life and career of the couturier. He turns out to be very much alive, their attempts at writing him off proving unnecessary.
How Bertrand Bonello Did a Fashion Legend Justice With ‘Saint Laurent’
How Bertrand Bonello Did a Fashion Legend Justice With 'Saint Laurent'
READ MORE: Gaspard Ulliel on Becoming ‘Saint Laurent’ and Kissing Louis Garrel
This seems akin to the approach a lot of filmmakers take when making biopics; make a condensed and accessible package of the greatest hits of a well-known person’s life. Bertrand Bonello realizes the futility of trying to fully encompass someone’s life and identity. The film, which opens in the U.S. today after premiering a year ago at Cannes, is a different breed to the onslaught of recent Oscar-winning biopics like “The Imitation Game” or “The Theory of Everything,” which seem to operate out of a misguided nobility to honor their subject with a definitive statement, brushing over any unpleasantries or ambiguities. “Saint Laurent” thrives on these tantalizing ambiguities, playfully mixing fact with fiction.
The film stars Gaspard Ulliel in the title role, who is seen primarily drifting in and out of the years between 1967 and 1976, and is then portrayed at a later point in life by Austrian actor Helmut Berger. It’s no coincidence that mirrors are a pervasive aspect of the mise-en-scene; the film’s portrayal of moods, people, places, and things is practically kaleidoscopic. “Saint Laurent” takes in the sumptuousness of Yves and his surroundings while obscuring the line between private and public personas, presenting a man that is wrapped in complexities and contradictions. It is less a statement than a collection of intoxicating propositions. The film is ultimately a love letter to a wildly inventive, exciting and tormented time that proved almost inevitably ephemeral.
Bonello met with Indiewire to discuss what drew him to the character of Saint Laurent, what made Ulliel the perfect choice for the role, and how people have reacted to the provocative portrayal of the fashion icon.
When the producers approached you with the prospect of making the film, what was your initial attraction to tackling Yves Saint Laurent as a subject?
I was not very aware of that many things. Of course in France he’s so famous that I knew what everybody knew, but not more than that. But I quickly saw a cinematic opportunity here that would bring the visual stuff, the scope, the period was very interesting too. Then after I started the research, I started to be very moved and touched by that man.
For a biographical film, “Saint Laurent” feels refreshing and surprising in many ways. One of the main aspects is the way in which the film primarily focuses on this one decade in his life. What brought about the idea to just focus on this pivotal period in his life?
Very quickly I knew that I couldn’t tell everything in a whole life. Because the risk is if you want tell too much you don’t tell anything, because you don’t have time in between the scenes. So I went through many ways. Maybe I should concentrate on three days or two months. And then quickly I arrived to ten years, because they’re very fascinating. I think you have everything inside these ten years, you don’t need much more. You have, at the beginning in ’67, you still have a young Yves, and in ’76 you already have an old Yves in a way. This is the decade in which there is the most creative, crazy, sexy, and I prefer to concentrate on this and take time in the sequences and not to have to rush and say everything about his life. So even though it’s ten years only, it’s already two hours and a half. [laughs]
The movie rests on Gaspard Ulliel’s performance, and he rises to the occasion. When did you decide that he was a perfect match for the role?
Well there was the first evidence, which was the physical resemblance. But it’s not enough, because I was very scared that the actor would do just an imitation. I wanted someone that could really incarnate the character. And so I spent a lot of time talking with him and telling him I wanted the character to be fifty percent of Saint Laurent and 50 percent of himself. I wanted him to bring his own fragility. And after a few weeks of screen tests and talking, I was really sure that he would be the perfect person and that he we had the same idea of how to deal with a living character.
It’s an incredible performance and very revealing, emotionally and physically. What were the discussions about how far you would push the sexy and debauched side of the character?
A lot of it was in the script. But we had a kind of a chance in a way. The film has been postponed twice for some, you know, money problem. So from the moment I first called Gaspard and told him I’d like for you to be in the film and the first day of shoot, it was like almost a year. So it was quite great, because he lived with Saint Laurent for a year, you know? So when he arrives on the set, you don’t feel the work. Everything is inside him because he’s lived with this character for twelve months, which is very, very long. I think it comes from this time.
You really capture the rigor and the precision of the atelier. What was the process like of preparing that part of the film and making it accurate?
Well, first of all, the people you see in the atelier are all real seamstresses. In fact, we had to redo all the dresses for the film because we didn’t have access to the real ones. So we built a kind of atelier for haute couture for three or four months. And during the prep, I could go once or twice a week to see them working, which was really beautiful. It’s such a huge work and so precise and everything. And I asked people who were working for me, ‘Do you mind being in the film? I’d like to do a few documentary scenes.’ So it’s my crew, in fact, and they’ve been working in haute couture many times before.
You have the painstaking workmanship and focus of the atelier, but on the other end you have the hedonistic milieu of his personal exploits. It must have been so much fun to really delve into the 1970’s time period with the music and costumes and the other various aesthetic components.
Oh yeah, great fun. I told you it’s what was part of my decision to make the film. I was born in ’68, so basically it was during my very small childhood. So its also the images of my parents and my parents’ friends, and everything that I heard. I was always very nostalgic of a period I haven’t really lived. So it was great, great fun to work on the atmosphere of the clubs and of all these periods, yes.
Another nostalgic aspect of the film is that you shot on 35mm, which is becoming increasingly rarer these days.
It’s sad that you say that it’s nostalgic, but it’s true. I really stick to 35 for many reasons. First it gives more sensuality, you know? To the fabrics, to the clothes, to the colors. It’s so rich. And also people have to be aware that it’s not that much more expensive than digital. So when you make a very cheap film, I understand you go to digital. But when you have a little money, you can think about 35. But in America, you still have a few directors that are really attached to that, and they make a big promotion for that.
“Saint Laurent” is rich with artistic and cultural references, and not just tied to the world of fashion. Warhol, Proust and Visconti are just a few of the figures whose work and ideas are brought up in the film. How did you go about placing these different references and influences?
Well basically I tried to go as close to Yves as I could, to approach him as much as I could. And it was his own obsessions, and his own aesthetic ghosts, in a way. Maria Callas, Proust of course, and he was watching at the end of his life Visconti’s films alone in his room. So when Helmut plays Yves, I just kept the idea that he was watching some Visconti’s. And everything is like bridges. For example, Yves for me could be a character of Visconti, and they both share the passion for Marcel Proust. And you know, everything resonates.
Much has been made about the fact that there was another film about Yves Saint Laurent being made near the same time as you. Which is ironic, since a few years back there were a few different Coco Chanel films that also came out in a close span of time. Did the other film have any bearing or influence on the film you were making?
We started our film just a little ahead before them. But when we heard that there was another film, the main problem is how will we be able to finance both films? Is the market able to absorb two films about the same subject? When we were sure that our film would be made, then you just concentrate on your stuff and forgot about the other one, otherwise you go crazy.
So it’s been a year since the film first premiered at Cannes, and since then you’ve been rolling it out at festivals and its various international releases. What kind of differences have you noticed in the reactions to the film?
I mean, of course, for France it’s the easiest because they know so much about Yves and they accept the film. In Russia, it was a little tough, because of course homosexuality is still like a crime. And some countries, they say that they didn’t know as much about his nightlife, his addictions, his problems with alcohol and drugs. They were a little surprised. But mostly, reactions are quite good. People are really moved by the character.
In a sense you’re still entrenched in the film as you’re promoting it. Have you been able to leave the world of the character behind and move on and prepare other projects?
Yes, because otherwise you’d lose it. [laughs] It’s difficult to work during promotion. But I had a script that I wanted to do before “Saint Laurent” and I was ready, so it should be shooting in a couple of months in Paris.