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

VOGUE Hommes International (English) - - FRONT PAGE - In­ter­view by DI­DIER PÉRON

—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.


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