New York Film Fest: 'Saint Laurent' Director Talks Screening Designer Biopic for Karl Lagerfeld
"I didn't want to show how he became Saint Laurent; I was much more interested in what it cost for Saint Laurent to be Saint Laurent every day"
Saint Laurent is a biopic with a point of view, said Bertrand Bonello during a press and industry post-screening Q&A at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theatre, ahead of the film's New York Film Festival premiere.
The Sony Pictures Classics release — which centers on Yves Saint Laurent, "a very depressed man, a very melancholic man" and is France's official submission for the foreign-language Oscar — deliberately portrays the designer's life when he was "the most crazy and the richest," from 1967 to 1976.
"I wasn’t so sure because the biopic is not my type of film, but very quickly, I changed my mind. The great luck is that there was nothing — no script, no books. I was very free to do what I want." Bonello explained. "The first thing I was thinking about is, what is going to be my point of view? The problem in biopic is that there's no point of view; it's only evidence, evidence, evidence.… I didn't want to show how he became Saint Laurent; I was much more interested in what it cost for Saint Laurent to be Saint Laurent every day."
Bonello also particularly likes Paris during this 10-year span, as well as what was happening in fashion at the time. "I'm always very moved by a world that ends.… It's the end of the '70s and the beginning of the '80s, which is a revolution. The passage from craft to industry."
Although this film was made without official support (YSL's longtime companion and business partner, Pierre Berge, instead threw his weight behind Jalil Lespert's project Yves Saint Laurent, granting that production access to the couple’s estates in Paris and Marrakech, while helping re-create YSL’s memorable Opera Ballets Russes collection of 1976), the production did not use archival pieces but "had to re-create truly the sewing workshop in the style of Saint Laurent," said Bonello. "We had 20 seamstresses, and they made [the dresses] exactly as they used to be made — the two collections you saw in the film. For me, the advantage, it made the clothes very alive, not something that comes from a museum.… the real Yves Saint Laurent dresses, they're museum pieces, so it's very difficult to manipulate them anyway."
Of his casting choices, Bonello met with 20 other actors but in the end chose frontrunner Gaspard Ulliel to play the designer, not only because of the strong physical resemblance. "You have to fall in love with your actor, not only what your character is doing; the character had to be half Saint Laurent and half Gaspard, not an imitation." Even more so, Helmut Berger plays Saint Laurent in a 1989 flash-forward to show, literally, that by then, "his body's not the same; he's someone else."
Saint Laurent features scenes that depict the designer's one-on-one relationship with Berge ("They are a monster with two heads") as well as scandalous scenes of his time with Jacques de Bascher. "Paradoxically, the movie is very chaste, because you don’t see anything really; a lot is off-screen. But I was very interested in the atmosphere."
The question remains: Has Karl Lagerfeld seen the film? The designer has sent Bonello messages every two weeks requesting to see the film, and regrettably had to cancel his attendance to its Cannes debut and Paris premiere. "Karl is too busy! He's [in his 80s] and he works night and day, but he's very curious. Because Jacques has really been the big love of his life, so he was anxious of how I was showing him.… Jacques is a character that doesn't exist anymore. He's like a black star, with no past and no future."