Yves Saint Laurent, the film
“It’s a different world.” Film–maker Bertrand Bonello, born in 1968, was a child of the Seventies — a decade he idolises, and one that Yves Saint Laurent clothed with thoroughbred elegance. A descent into those madly enervated years is also the theme of t
—The place: a very 70s lobby in a luxury hotel. A man approaches the concierge and says: “You have a reservation in the name of Monsieur Swann.” Gaspard Ulliel plays Yves Saint Laurent in the film that Bertrand Bonello shot this winter and is editing as we go to press. The scene continues in a hotel room. Ulliel is back–lit, seated on the bed, facing away from the camera as it slowly zooms in on him. Outside, Paris is overcast. He is holding a black telephone receiver to his ear, speaking to a journalist at the other end in a precious, thin voice: “I was interned 16 years ago, you know, during the Algerian War. The doctors at the Val–de– Grâce military hospital filled me so full of tranquillisers that I became addicted to them. They used electric shock treatment on me, too. It was hell. I was surrounded by real lunatics. Some of them wanted to caress me but I wouldn’t let them. In two months I only went to the toilet twice, I was so frightened. In the end, I was down to 35kg, and I had mental problems.” After L’Apollonide ( “House of Tolerance” ), his magnificent tale of life in a Paris brothel, caught in its all poisonous erotic isolation, Bertrand Bonello was asked by the Altmayer Brothers — producers inter alia of OSS 117, the most recent François Ozon movies ( Potiche, Jeune et Jolie ) and
The Conquest, a film on Nicolas Sarkozy’s election campaign — to direct a major production with a budget of close to €10 million on the great couturier. At the same time, a parallel production was launched, with Jalil Lespert in the director’s chair. Lespert, in addition to having the blessing of Pierre Bergé, also opted for speed and his Saint Laurent biopic went on general release in January 2013 and was a box–office success. Bonello and his team did not have access to the archives of the Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint Laurent Foundation. They had to recreate two entire collections — 45 dresses — and make an exact replica of the apartment on the Rue de Babylone. The shoot took place over nine weeks in a Paris mansion transformed into a film studio, in which no fewer than 26 sets were built by chief production designer Katia Wyszkop, who won a César for her set design in Benoît Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen. The cast list is gold–plated: Gaspard Ulliel and Louis Garrel ( Jacques de Bascher ) will be the two main characters, supported by Jérémie Rénier ( Pierre Bergé ), Léa Seydoux ( Loulou de la Falaise ) and revenant Helmut Berger, Visconti’s favourite actor, who had more or less dropped off the cinematic radar since his star turns as Ludwig II of Bavaria and in The Damned in the great, great 1970s.
I found Bertrand Bonello in an editing suite in central Paris. He is only days away from the first screening of the first cut, which tips the scales at around three hours. He has just come back from an appointment at the Pompidou Centre, which has given him carte blanche for a season this coming autumn. Snowed under with work, but always amazingly calm and gentle despite the workload, Bonnello, 45, who made his first full–length feature, Something Organic, back in 1998, followed by The Pornographer with Jean–Pierre Léaud in 2001, gave me a sneak preview of several scenes that he has already edited: Saint Laurent’s earth–shattering first meeting with Jacques de Bascher beneath the multi–coloured neons of Sept, a night club; a solitary dinner in the gilded surroundings of the apartment on the Rue de Babylone; a scene during the preparations for a catwalk show, where the couturier says: “When I close my eyes, I can see the colours; when I open them, everything is dark”; another in a bedroom in Marrakech, with dozens of snakes writhing on Saint Laurent’s body during an attack of the DTs …. Each scene promises a generous film, as profound as the cadenced periods of Saint Laurent’s beloved Marcel Proust.
“I found the idea of filming the last years of the 70s and early 80s very tempting. Everything to do with the end of a world is so moving.”
The desire to make a film about Yves Saint vogue hommes international Laurent came from the producers, the Altmayer brothers, who called you up. What prompted you to say: Let’s do it?
It was almost something autobiographical, Bertrand Bonello something connected with my mother. She was always a fan of Saint Laurent. She must have bought one of his tuxedo suits in 1966 and worn it for 40 years. She followed all his collections. At home, we had books about the Villa Majorelle, and the objets d’art that the Bergé–Saint– Laurent duo collected, and so on. I personally don’t really like biopics, but the cinematographic qualities immediately seemed very rich to me, with a subject like that. There’s a genuinely romantic central character, a bit crazy, but because he had really existed, you can do what you want with the character, make it up as you go along. The luxurious, flamboyant visual aspect is obvious in such a larger–than–life character. Although my previous film, House of Tolerance, looked at the years around the turn of the 20th century through the lens of a Paris bordello, I found the idea of filming the last years of the 70s and early 80s very tempting. Everything to do with the end of a world is so moving. I think that the late 1980s marked the beginning of the end of civilisation. They did for the world. The 1970s were when I was growing up, the memory of my parents and their friends, a mix of light–heartedness and intelligence …. That’s something I don’t really find today, when there’s a lot more grossness and stupidity around.
Did you immerse yourself in the various biographies? vhi
I think I have read everything there is. After that, BB with Thomas Bidegain [ joint script–writer on, among others, A Prophet, by Jacques Audiard ], we had to put it all to one side so we could get writing. The good thing was that we didn’t have a book to adapt, so there were no limitations in that direction. After that, a biopic has its own laws. However much you might want to duck out, you have to go with the flow of a certain chronology, events that really took place, that sort of thing.
Yes, and the central character is so many– sided: there’s the vh i couturier, the celebrity, the depressive, the homosexual, Bergé’s partner, and so on.
For me, it all came together when I stopped chasing BB an impossible dream — explaining how Saint Laurent became what he was — and changed the whole thrust to show what it cost him every day to be Yves Saint Laurent, and to maintain that persona at all costs — something he would do throughout his life. I felt that I wasn’t under any obligation, other than to stick to him, whatever happened. It’s not a wide–angle shot any more, but a constant close–up. In a sense, I was helped by the fact that Jalil Lespert’s film, which was released in January, took a more official biographical angle. I no longer felt I had to tell the story of how he created the brand. That’s
“In any case, the film isn’t an attempt to have the last word on a character like him. At the end of the film, the mystery, I hope, will still be there. All we have done is get him to strut his stuff for us and undermine our certainties.”
why we binned the first 25 pages of the screenplay to dive straight in, in 1968, when Saint Laurent was already a global celebrity. But the topic is delicate, if only because of the fashion question. How do you show the pace at which fashion phenomena move? And how it has an impact — or not? What makes a successful collection? Saint Laurent created hippie chic, and it flopped, so he made a complete U–turn, and then six months later, hippie chic was the big thing. It’s unbelievably complicated to get spectators to understand without the crutch of an omniscient narrator who explains it a ll. When you write a screenplay from scratch, a story you’ve made up yourself, it’s like arriving in the desert and having to build a house there. Here, it’s different. You have this mountain before you and you have to carve a house into it. So the big job is to get rid of stuff, bit by bit, to remove the rough edges. You start off with a cast of fity characters, and then you toss them out, one by one — not him, not her; yes, we’ll keep him, and so it goes on. And I don’t want to have to go through the lookalikes thing. We have to go down that path with Saint Laurent and Bergé, but we won’t be seeing Catherine Deneuve or Karl Lagerfeld in the film. During the editing process, I can already see what is starting to take over, and that’s the relationship between Yves Saint Laurent and Jacques de Bascher. Even if Yves had 500 lovers, I’ll still be using Bascher, played by Louis Garrel, as a central piece to send him crashing down.
Obviously, the biographical sources for Saint Laurent’s private life have to be handled with care. How did you deal with the exaggerations, the gossip, and the blanks in the history and / or myth?
If I stuck with the strict, factual reality, I know that the film wouldn’t get off the ground. At one point in his
Letters to Yves, Pierre Bergé writes: “One day you aimed a statue at my head.” Based on that sentence, I came up with a completely crazy scene, which isn’t just about one guy throwing something at another guy in a domestic quarrel. The underlying thrust is fact–driven, but then you have to abandon yourself to the poetic. For example, I shot a night scene with two models, one nude, and the other in a Saint Laurent tuxedo, a scene that operates as a sort of Greek chorus, and they’re talking about Yves: “Hey darling, where is Saint Laurent? Where is Yves? — I don’t know. Maybe he is just a perfume now ….” It’s also a way for me to address Saint Laurent’s obsession about his future as a brand. He dreamed of himself as a pure artist and he woke up as a handbag. Everyone has seen his public image: the interviews, the photos, it’s all on the web. The private image is another kettle of fish altogether: how did Yves Saint Laurent ask for some sugar in his kitchen? What words do you use? In any case, the film isn’t an attempt to have the last word on a character like him. At the end of the film, the mystery, I hope, will still be there. All we have done is get him to strut his stuff for us and undermine our certainties. The film begins in a classic way, with a few normal expository scenes, then, bit by bit, it all falls apart, and explodes, and that’s where I hope to
“He’s totally avid for everything going: sex, booze, fame …”
come closest to the character — when he loses it. That’s where I find it a pity that Pierre Bergé wanted to control everything, because multiple interpretations about Saint Laurent don’t actually detract from his image.
VHI Did any particular models of biopics serve as an inspiration for you?
I watched Martin Scorsese’s Aviator about Howard Hughes again, because Saint Laurent, like Hughes, came from an affluent background and everything he touched turned to gold. So you don’t have the classic dramatic plot of an unknown down on his uppers driven by a need for some sort of social revenge, who succeeds on the strength of his personal charisma and convictions, but who has a background weak spot, often in the shape of a violent parent or being abandoned in childhood. When you watch La
Vie en Rose, about Edith Piaf, or the life of Coco Chanel, born out of wedlock to itinerant parents, their stories are about social aspiration, which is not at all the case here. You could even say that Saint Laurent’s life was devoid of events. He says he’s giving it all up, but goes on anyway. He wants to get away, but he stays. He continually complains that he doesn’t have a life but most people would like to have a life as chock–a–block as his. He doesn’t have any fun, he says, but he’s at a night club until 7am. He’s totally avid for everything going: sex, booze, fame …. When he drinks, it’s two bottles a day, not to mention popping pills and sniffing coke. He’s completely OTT all the time, he’s explosive. I know exactly what he took, and when people tell you he was fragile, it’s just not true. If I took a tenth of what he took, I’d be dead! You have to remember that. It’s amazing, the punishment he took. But when you see the Howard Hughes / DiCaprio movie, it’s hard not to be jealous when it comes to pacing, because they go at a million miles an hour, whereas Saint Laurent does things slowly. He speaks slowly. On the set with Gaspard Ulliel, I tried to up the pace, but it didn’t work. You have to put yourself on the same wavelength. And now, at the editing stage, you realise that the scenes are long and that you just have to go with the flow.
VHI Whose idea was it to cast Helmut Berger in the role of the ageing Saint Laurent?
Thomas Bidegain and I had hardly written a word. We were still working on a plan in three parts: the young man ( day ), the rock star ( night ) and the declining years ( YSL ). Almost immediately, when we were thinking about this third act, we looked at each other and said, in the same breath: “Helmut Berger!” It was a no–brainer, possibly because the shade of Visconti was hovering over the whole project, because at some point, Saint Laurent became an obsessive aesthete who could no longer bear to have anything ugly in this field of vision, a typically decadent aristocratic syndrome. Saint Laurent, was, in a sense, a monster — or at least, he became one. And Helmut could really embody that much better than any other actor. I’d heard that Berger had an agent called Bonelli, so I called him up and he said to me: “Helmut is a prick, and I won’t have anything more to do with him.” So I managed to wangle his private phone number by another route. Berger lives in Salzburg, supposedly with his mother, until I learned that she’d been dead for two years. He took a lot of convincing that he wasn’t going to act Saint Laurent at every period: “But I’m still very young! I want to go to night clubs.” I flew him to Paris and it was, shall we say, difficult. He really acted up, a real bad boy. There was no way of knowing if he’d read the screenplay. All he wanted to do was spend money in department stores. Finally, I said: “That’s it. It’s impossible, it’ll never work.” And then he came back into the circle, and I went to see my producers to explain to them that, really, Helmut had the same kind of craziness as Yves. When he arrived, we had already begun shooting on the set, and I think he liked that. He saw we were filming in 35mm, he saw that the lighting was beautiful, and it reminded him of the great Visconti period. He has an amazing presence. He brings along an incredible life experience, a lot of wreckage, too much booze. In fact he says, “When Visconti died, I died.” After that, he never did anything interesting, and these days he occasionally does a gig on Austrian TV, in reality shows, for the money. Another thing about Helmut is that he’s obsessed with Saint–Tropez. He wants to go there all the time. He even called me up on New Year’s Eve to wish me a happy new year, and told me he was calling from the Hôtel de Paris in Saint Tropez.
VH I When you make a film about a great creator, you must come face– to–face with your own creativity. Wasn’t that a bit scary?
When the time to shoot was getting near, and I was at home, or mired in economic, legal and logistical problems, I would sometimes take my head in my hands, thinking “Good grief! What were you thinking of?” But once I was on the set, it was OK. The enemy is not the lack of ideas, but the lack of time. You always have to work fast, and sometimes, in the evening, you have an eclectic light bulb moment about the way you should have shot the scene that afternoon. But by then the set has been torn down and it’s too late. I was given €9 million, people have been writing huge cheques, and I can’t muck them about. There’s a lot of pressure. Expectations are pretty high. Some days, you need a little pick–me–up to get yourself to the set, and I’d be lying if I said that I’d shot the whole thing on an empty stomach ( laughs ). Yeah, but I allowed myself a lot of latitude, and now I’m letting myself be carried along by the rushes. I go with the good stuff, and I hope people will like it.