I once saw a Yves Saint Laurent ad on an old videotape, wherein a man—clad in impossibly chic late-’80s business wear—remained frozen, standing rigidly still at the frame’s center. As the camera pulled back to reveal him surrounded by a bustling Parisian intersection, the tragic poetry of his couture dedication crystalized across the screen: the YSL logo. I remembered it many times during Bertrand Bonello’s spectacular Saint Laurent, which manages to both meet and one-up the conventions of the classical biopic. Bonello’s Saint Laurent, played by both Gaspard Ulliel (between 1967 and 1976) and Helmut Berger, is no passive protagonist; in the film’s gauntlet-throwing introduction, he’s first heard speaking to a journalist via telephone about his addiction to tranquilizers, how he suffered shock treatment, and how it all started when he was interned back in the Algerian War. It’s more than he’ll say about himself for the rest of the film, with Yves’s ambivalent smirk (sinister on Ulliel’s face, pitiful on Berger’s) receding further out while a gilded cosmos of sex, drugs, money, and high fashion swirls around him, twitching at his whims.
Investing YSL’s memories as set pieces with a tenuous grip on time, Saint Laurent is also a supremely juicy work of big-screen entertainment with an acute pulse for drama. In the space of a few minutes, a prolonged negotiation between Yves, his partner, Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Renier), and an American shareholder (Brady Corbett)—complete with a passive-voiced interpreter, audibly vexed by the onset of a shouting match—suggests decades of day-to-day monotony, neither elided nor magnified by the film’s overall horticulture of events. Saint Laurent interrogates YSL’s allure while taking inventory of the insanely gaudy bric-a-brac that he surrounded himself with, allowing ponderous slow tracks that recall Burt Lancaster perusing the grounds of his fading empire in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard. It makes sense, then, that in our discussion of the film, Bonello called it a “golden jail” film.
I’d like to begin with a practical question: Is it true that this film was shot largely in one location, with all the sets built for individual scenes?
We used a huge building in central Paris as a studio, but with real walls. Inside of it, we did, like, 22 or 24 locations—basically, everything but the nightclubs and the fashion shows.
I have to ask then if the film is claustrophobic on purpose. The typical arsenal of shots for a period film is: sweeping, God’s-eye vistas, gigantic location shots. Saint Laurent is more interior, both psychologically and literally.
There are two things. First, when you do an outdoor shot in a period film, for me actually, it’s so much work for, really, not a whole lot. It’s just to show off our range. But basically, the reason is that I quickly thought of Saint Laurent as a jail film. A golden jail, but a jail, you know? For me, Yves Saint Laurent is someone who was really kept from reality, kept from the outside, and he was into luxurious boxes: his studio, nightclubs, his apartments. He’s not someone I can imagine walking on the street. He was really protected, which is why I say “jail.” This gives, of course, a sense of claustrophobia.
The film begins with this hypothesis of sickness, frailness, despondency—and it eventually comes back around. But within the narrative, there are moments where Yves Saint Laurent is being supported, taken care of, etc. It seems possible that there’s hope, still, for him. It’s almost suspenseful.
Well, one of the greatest difficulties was that not a lot happened to him in his life. We had to create tension within the sequences, instead of writing a plot, since he was basically someone who drew, went to nightclubs, took drugs, and then was destroyed. He was born rich and became successful at a young age. It’s difficult to make a script with these elements. Basically, the main stuff is fragility—his depression, his melancholia—and the goal was to create empathy from that.
After House of Tolerance, I was expecting a perhaps even higher level of the phantasmagorical: dreams, nightmares, hallucinations, etc. But you kept Yves Saint Laurent inscrutable.
I would say the last 45 or 60 minutes are something like that. It’s about starting in an objective way and finishing in a subjective way. The last hour, for me, was like entering a room with many mirrors, each one an image of Saint Laurent, but not the same. And it’s about mental imagery: the snakes, the picture of Saint Laurent entering Proust’s room. But the film is also like a journey, starting with a wide shot and finishing with a close-up.
It also ends on, for Yves Saint Laurent, a happier note.
I don’t know how to translate his last smile; it could be something that opens to life or closes, but for me it’s a mystery shot. Which is what I like.
I actually was referring to the debut of the “Russian Ballet” collection in 1976.
Oh! Well, for me, my point of view with the film is: I’m going to try and say what it cost Yves every day to be Yves. Of course, there’s this high level of genius, talent, beauty, but it cost him a lot. So it’s up and down. Not a rise and fall like you usually have, just an up and down within the same moment, and all the time.
Was there every a draft that didn’t include the bookending Helmut Newton sequences?
I have to say, the first image I had of the film is an aging Saint Laurent, alone, in a beautiful apartment, remembering stuff. I didn’t want this as the first image, but it was the first I had in mind, early in the script.
Were there other, fundamental building blocks of the film you had in your mind before writing the script?
I try to have six or seven foundational scenes that would build my desire for the film. Then I write the in between—and that sort of makes the film. I was very obsessed with the nightclub scenes. For me, it was a very important and interesting challenge: the business scene, and the two models walking in the street, talking about him. Basically, it’s the first stuff I have, and I really care about that—all the rest of the work is to make these scenes exist.
Is it true that you pretty much had complete creative control over the film, even though you signed on to a preexisting production deal?
Yes. This is the film I wanted to do. Of course, sometimes you have a little tension with producers, but…I’m French. [laughs]
Martin Scorsese once said he hated acting, but took bit parts in his own films, and others, because he thought it would help him as a director. You regularly cameo in your own films, and now you’re starring in Antoine Barraud’s Portrait of an Artist. Have you picked up any of these kinds of lessons?
Yeah, I like doing it because…I don’t know if it’s learning, but you feel something, you know? It helps me to talk to the actors afterward. I would hate to be an actor, but I like to act sometimes.
Had you trained, studied as an actor?
No. Sometimes friends would ask me, “Do you want to do a couple scenes for my film?” So, I just do it. And in Saint Laurent, I’m doing the part of a journalist working on a, what’s the word, “necrology”?
Obituary. Although I prefer “necrology.”
Well, in fact, doing a biopic is like doing an obituary. Let’s say you’re a journalist, okay, and you learned at four p.m. that someone’s dying, and you have two hours to write about this person’s life for tomorrow’s paper, right? Doing a biopic, it’s the same. You have two hours to relate the life of someone. So it was logical that it was me, playing the part of the journalist writing about Yves Saint Laurent’s death.
Some of your very earliest work is being shown at Film Society of Lincoln Center, even your early short films. For instance, Cindy, the Doll Is Mine starring Asia Argento.
Well, I’m very happy about that. Not many of my films have been released here, and it’s an amazing place to show them. I will do as many Q&As as I can, of course. I really care for the short movies that I’ve done. It’s not like I did short movies and then features. I always try, between features, to make short movies. I’m preparing a short one for the Paris Opera that we’re going to shoot soon.
So, your problem with Saint Laurent, you said the scenes play long. Were you having too many good ideas?
Ah! Well, usually when you make a film, it’s like you go into the desert, and you build a house. When you’re doing a biopic, a film provided by a true story, it’s like you’re facing a mountain. And you sculpt it until the house appears. It’s just different work. The first one is to take away ideas and stuff, and what remains is basically the heart of your film. Too many ideas? It’s a 72-year life, full of stuff, and the first thing is to say, “I’m not going to depict everything. What am I going to leave out?”
My favorite moment is the scene of the two guys hauling the gigantic portrait of Yves Saint Laurent out the front of the penthouse, before the press conference.
[laughs] I like the fact that it was, in a way, comical and, in a way, tragic. For me, it says a lot about Pierre and Yves, that bigger-than-life stuff, that he’s not able to come to an event so they send a picture, but even the picture isn’t able to come. I like when some of the tragic stuff has a comic side. It’s a very melancholic film, in a way. It’s about a man who’s able to have everything and he’s not happy.
When you’re tackling this kind of subject matter, it seems to me one would be at a pronounced risk of being seduced, aesthetically, by the movie’s world. How do those choices work for you? When to make something look sexy versus when to clinicize it, and so forth?
With my crew, DP, set decorator, and costume designer, during the six months of preparation we asked a lot of those questions. Which lever are we going to push? Because everything is a matter of equilibrium, and it’s all very delicate. I put more of the seamstresses’ work into the film than I thought I would. We had to redo all the costumes, we hired an atelier, I spent some time with them and I really loved this kind of documentary side of the film.
Has this experience left you with any really hard opinions about fictional versus historic subject matter? I know a lot of research went into House of Tolerance, but it seems freer in a way…
You have a difficulty when a story’s true, and it’s that you mustn’t be crushed by the truth. You have to take, of course, a lot of information and throw it away, invent your own reality. Otherwise it’s just like something you might read on Wikipedia. That’s the most difficult thing. It’s like saying the truth by lying.