The Making of a Saint

Lea Seydoux, Gaspard Ulliel and Aymeline Valade in Saint Laurent, 2014. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

How much would you like to know about the intimate life of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent? Since his death in 2008 at age 71, several movies have been made about the man and his career. The most recent films (Yves Saint Laurent; L’amour fou and Saint Laurent) form a trifecta -- complementing and overlapping each other’s content, while portraying him through three very different lenses.

In Yves Saint Laurent, we are privy to the facts a standard biopic provides. The movie frames his life in neat parentheses. Sanctioned by his estate, the film nimbly captures the ups and downs of a life, without lingering long on either. It’s a competent melodrama with fine acting, but it leaves the viewer with the sense that -- apart from a few racy scenes -- it probably played on the French version of the Hallmark Channel.

On the other end of the spectrum, L’amour fou is a documentary told from the point of view of Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s personal and professional life partner. After Laurent’s death, Bergé auctioned off a vast collection of artwork they collected during their time together (the estate garnered more than $484 million). The film, in many ways, is an unconscious ode to capitalism. There are endless warmly-lit shots of the many houses the couple owned, and the infinite splendor their empire afforded them. L'amour fou illuminates their riches more than their characters, but watching it is like stumbling upon Ali Baba’s cave of treasure.

And now there’s Saint Laurent, starring Gaspard Ulliel. You may recognize his lithe physique from the Bleu de Chanel commercials directed by Martin Scorsese. Or if you’re a fan of the director André Téchiné, you’ll remember him as the stray youth in Les égarés (2003). In any event, you won’t forget him any time soon after seeing his portrayal of Laurent. Ulliel is a magnetic presence in a film that favors longueurs -- scenes that depict the minutiae of raw, uncensored pain -- and the director, Bertrand Bonello, lingers within those moments at great length.

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Saint Laurent is the filmic equivalent of drinking a bottle of absinthe. Even after leaving the theater, its green haze is not easily shaken off. Bonello and Ulliel discuss the process of making Laurent into their version of a deeply troubled saint.

Left to right: Gaspard Ulliel as Yves Saint Laurent and Louie Garrel as Jacques De Bascher
Gaspard Ulliel as Yves Saint Laurent and Louie Garrel as Jacques De Bascher. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Where do you place Yves Saint Laurent in the cultural life of France?

Bertrand Bonello: There are two things. First of all, it’s true that in France his image is associated with high fashion and luxury, and he is among the great designers and very important for us. And then, the second thing that interested me was that he was the last of the great classical designers. There’s Chanel, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. There are other talented fashion designers now but it’s not the same. He represents, and this is also one of the subjects of the film, the passage of haute couture from an artisanal approach into one that is a massive, global industry.

Gaspard Ulliel: And that’s exactly what we see in the film. During his lifetime, it’s the moment when the world of the fashion industry begins to really transform into what it is today. There is no longer the same artistic level of accomplishment in a certain way, in regards to branding or ready-to-wear.

There are two other recent films about him: Yves Saint Laurent (2014) and L’amour fou (2010). Your film is less strictly biographical.

Bonello: We don’t need to know everything about the characters to enter the world of a particular film. What interested me was the present moment that we show in each scene, not the typical biographical film. If you want to look for that kind of information, you can find it on Wikipedia.

Ulliel: We also knew that while Yves Saint Laurent was in production, that it would be more biographical than our film. Bertrand has said that this allowed us to make a film that didn’t require as much exposition.

The 1970s, as portrayed in the film, share the same degree of decadence as your last film L’Apollonide (2011), which takes place in fin de siècle France.

Bonello: It’s true that the two films share some of that same decadence. Also, in both cases, the end of an era. The end of the 19th century for L’Apollonide; and the end of the 1970s for Saint Laurent. The end of the 1970s deeply affected me. After the 1970s, the world was never the same. That’s what I wanted to show in the film, the moment before the 1980s began. When the actor Helmut Berger appears on screen (as the older version of Yves Saint Laurent), we understand that we’re no longer in the same world. In general, I find things that end very touching. When I said that Yves was the last of his kind, that’s also because his life and his career encompassed that era. Historically, decadence slowly assists the decline of something. I find it upsetting.

Gaspard Ulliel as Yves Saint Laurent. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
Gaspard Ulliel as Yves Saint Laurent. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

In the documentary L’amour fou, Laurent's apartment in Paris is shot with natural light from windows that let the outside world in. In your version, the apartment feels dark and claustrophobic, like a tomb.

Bonello: Yes, it’s a magnificent tomb, but it’s still a tomb. There is, for example, the scene I really like between Louis Garrel (who plays Jacques de Bascher) and Gaspard when Garrel’s character visits the apartment. Yves, at this point, is still very much alive. He says, look at this painting. I love this one by Matisse, and this one by Mondrian. By the end of the film, he has all of these things but is alone. His journey in the film brings him solitude. It's a solitude behind a golden screen, but it's still a solitude.

Did you feel obligated to look for the psychological reasons behind his emotional decline and addictions?

Bonello: We can give reasons for a person’s self-destruction, but we don’t always know why people behave the way they do... We know that his partner Pierre Berger has said publicly that Yves was fragile and inclined toward depression. And at the same time, he had the strength to continue to work. I didn’t want to look for an explanation that would be reductive.

Ulliel: There’s another idea that Bertrand talked about -- the mythology of a public figure like Yves Saint Laurent. We can’t explain, in human terms, something that lies outside of the mythology. What I find beautiful is that at the end of the movie, the mystery of his character is intact.

After living in his skin for several months, what are you taking away from having played Yves Saint Laurent?

Ulliel: It’s pretty hard to know exactly what a role can bring you. Maybe I can respond to that question in several years... Certainly, I can say that in this role I was willing to stay focused and immersed myself in the character and the historical era throughout the filming. Something that hadn’t happened for me before in making films was that at the beginning of the shoot, I had the fear that I might lose some of the character when I went home at night. There was this desire to really stay "in his shoes."

I read that the films of Luchino Visconti were influential for you on this movie.

Bonello: Visconti is an incredible filmmaker who I admire because, cinematically, he has done everything. There are also bridges between Visconti and Yves Saint Laurent. When I think of Yves, I think of him as a Visconti type. They both also share a passion for Proust... And I read in a biography, that Yves often watched Visconti’s films. Yves and Helmut Berger also knew each other. There are these aesthetic connections like that. That’s one of the reasons Helmut came to mind for the role. Despite this beautiful aesthetic space where everything stayed flamboyant, there was a brilliant body that imploded because of an excess of alcohol and drugs.

Saint Laurent opens May 15 at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco and May 22 at the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

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Editor's note: This interview was translated from French and has been condensed.

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