Bertrand Bonello explores the visual, romantic, and Viscontian facets of legendary fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent’s (Gaspard Ulliel) life and career in his unconventional biopic, Saint Laurent. The story unfolds in the powerful decade between 1967 and 1976, when sweeping changes are underway in the fashion world and Saint Laurent is building his empire, before shifting to the late 1980s as the industry enters a new era. Bonello’s decision to shoot in 35mm lends a voluptuous visual sophistication to the colors, textures and fabrics that make up the flamboyant artist’s creative universe. Jérémie Renier, Louis Garrel, and Helmut Berger play supporting roles.
In an exclusive interview, Bonello talked about what inspired him to make the film, his collaboration with co-writer Thomas Bidegain, how he refined a long and complicated story into what became the heart of the movie, casting the right actors for each part, why it was important to portray the era accurately and reveal the light as well as dark aspects of Saint Laurent’s personality that fueled his creativity, the contributions of his DP Josée Deshaies and Costume Designer Anaïs Romand, the eclectic score he created for the film, Saint Laurent’s enduring influence, and his upcoming film Paris Is Happening. Check it all out in the interview below:
What was it about Yves Saint Laurent and his story that really resonated with you and made you want to make this film?
BERTRAND BONELLO: In fact, it’s not my idea. It’s a producer who had really wanted for a few years to make a film about Saint Laurent. The producers were searching for a director. When they saw my previous film, House of Pleasure, they called me. Maybe they saw some relationship in terms of aesthetics or atmosphere, and they said, “Are you interested in making a film about Saint Laurent?” My first reaction was, “I’m not so sure because I’m not crazy about biopics.” But this was only for 15 minutes, because very quickly I saw all the opportunities that it would give me in terms of cinema – the visuals, the story, and the character. He’s like a character in a novel and something you cannot invent, because people will tell you it’s too much, it’s too big. Here, they brought it to me on a plate in a way. After I started to work on the character, I was very quickly moved by many things that I hadn’t thought of before – his fragility and his strength at the same time and the way this man could burn himself out for his creation. That was something that really moved me.
Can you talk about your collaboration with Thomas Bidegain on the writing of the script and what he brought to the process?
BONELLO: It was the first time I ever wrote with someone. Usually I write alone. The producers asked me, “Maybe this time you should work with someone.” I didn’t know Thomas before. I only knew his work with Jacques Audiard. So, I said, “Okay. I’d like to meet this guy.” He came to my place and entered and said, “I have to tell you, I really do not give a shit about fashion.” I said, “Okay, sit down. We’re going to talk.” After two hours, we had the plan of the film in our heads. It was like table tennis as we bounced ideas around. He brought to me a lot of things about structure. He helped me to construct maybe my ideas which were in every direction. So yes, table tennis is the right image.
How long did it take to get the script to the place where this could all happen?
BONELLO: It took us almost a year, I guess, every day. I had some much longer versions. I tried a lot of things. It’s like sculpture. You take away some things, and then the day after, you see if you miss them or not. The construction was very complicated and very precise. So yes, it was quite long.
I liked the non-linear approach you took and how you picked the pivotal moments in Saint Laurent’s life to bring him to life as a character.
BONELLO: Yes. I wanted the scenes to be real scenes. That takes time, but you feel the time as you go into the sequences. I didn’t want that many scenes. Even though the film is 2-1/2 hours long, there are not so many scenes in the film. You really have to pick the right moments that you want to work on. It’s like you’re in front of a mountain and you have to do some sculpting to make something appear like the heart of the film. Of course, the first work is you have all the books and the life of Saint Laurent, and then you take away all the things that don’t interest you so much. What is left is the heart of the film.
What kind of research did you do for this project?
BONELLO: Wow, I had between 30 and 35 books. You have the classical biographies, which you read, but they’re not the most important. For me, the most important were the visual researches, which is everything that touches the apartments, the houses, the paintings, and the furniture. Of course, it’s also everything that is about the work in haute couture and the economy of haute couture. This was the kind of research I did. I also spent a lot of time on all the books about the collections and the dresses.
You have an impressive cast. Can you talk about what Gaspard Ulliel and your supporting actors — Jérémie Renier, Louis Garrel and Helmut Berger — brought to the project? Why were they the right actors for this film?
BONELLO: The first one I cast was actually Helmut Berger, because while we were writing the script, we had this image of Helmut alone in Saint Laurent’s beautiful apartment which is also his grave. Then, I concentrated on the main part. That’s Gaspard. When I found Gaspard, for me, then next it was finding couples, people that really worked with Gaspard. For example, Jérémie, I was not sure about at the beginning, but they are very, very good friends.
There was something in the screen tests that revealed that you would believe in their relationship and complicity. [This was important] because when the film starts, they are already a couple, so I wanted the audience to feel something very quickly. After that, finding the lover, Louis Garrel, was very long and difficult, because that kind of character doesn’t exist anymore. I mean, this very 70’s type of dandy. I did a lot of tests with many actors, but it always seemed very theatrical. Louis brought something very contemporary to this idea of a dandy, so it worked very quickly. He brought something quite light also. This was quite scary and I liked it.
Did you encourage Gaspard to build on a basic idea of what Saint Laurent was like while also bringing to the character some of his own ideas?
BONELLO: We were searching for an equilibrium. Going too much towards Yves would give an imitation and too much towards Gaspard would take us away from the character. We were trying to find the perfect equilibrium so that he’s not going to be like a puppet. Yves is so close in our memory, because he died not very long ago, that you have to follow a few things – the talking, the fragility, the gestures, and things like that.
Was it challenging shooting in different time periods while also trying to capture the spirit of each era?
BONELLO: For me, that was the most difficult thing because I didn’t want to be folkloric about that. I tried to find the good details, to find a good atmosphere of nightclubs and nightlife. The extras were important, as well as which music and the way the light was on the set. The sets were maybe the most difficult challenge because it’s very easy to be cheesy. (Laughs) You have to pay attention to everything. For example, my previous film, House of Pleasure, took place in 1900, and in a way, it’s easier because no one can come and say, “Well…hmm.” But here, in 1973 and 1974, even I remember the cars, the ties, and everything so it’s tricky.
Can you talk a little about your collaboration with your DP and your creative team in terms of the visual design of the film?
BONELLO: I’ve done twelve films – short, long and features — with my D.P., Josée Deshaies, so it’s easy in a way. We don’t talk that much because we know each other so well. We decided very early to shoot in 35mm, which was very important to me for the centrality of the image, for the fabrics, the colors and everything. The costume designer, Anaïs Romand, did my previous film, House of Pleasure, which was a lot of work. We discovered each other on that film. She’s a woman around 60 and she knows so much about this period and was a great, great help. And then, after that, I think the secret was time. You have to take a lot of time to talk, discuss, to bifurcate sometimes and take the wrong path, and then come back. So, it just took some time.
Why did you choose to use split screens for some of the scenes?
BONELLO: There are two split screens in the film. They are very different and for different reasons. The first one is when you have the dresses on the right and the news footage on the left. I wanted to say that of course we love him and he’s a great designer, but the world is changing and it does not interest him that much. It’s a small but critical scene. It’s to say that he is also in a way cut off from reality and cut off from the outside world. I wanted to say to the audience that I’m aware of that. The other one is about how to show a fashion show on the screen for cinema. I didn’t want it to look like a fashion show on TV which we have seen so many times. It’s very difficult to find where to put the camera and how to edit, and I was searching for an idea. Then, I read an interview of Yves’ where he says that his collection in 1976 was maybe his only painterly collection. So, I decided to try to show it like a painting, much more than dresses. Of course, the relationship between Piet Mondrian and Yves is quite obvious, because Yves started Mondrian dresses and Mondrian is just perfect for split screen. So, it’s done for that reason. I tried to think of the scene as only colors and movements and sensation rather than “I’m going to show you the dresses of Yves Saint Laurent” which is not my job. You have magazines for that. You have websites. You have everything. It’s a way to translate this into a cinematic scene as much as possible.
Was it important to show the light as well as dark aspects of Saint Laurent’s personality that fueled his creativity?
BONELLO: It works well because I don’t think it’s possible to show one without the other. It’s like you have Yves by day and Yves by night, but it’s the same Yves. If he doesn’t go to nightclubs at night, he doesn’t draw this way in the morning. For us, in France, it’s not a risk because we all know his addictions to drugs and alcohol. It was not a secret. There are no secrets in the film. Now, when I travel a little with the film abroad, some people of course don’t know Yves so well as French people do. Sometimes they’re a little surprised and say, “Did you need to show us that? We just want to see the genius.” I say, “Yes, because it’s part of him also.” So, it was not a risk. It might be a surprise for some people in some countries maybe that just know the fashion designer and not the man.
Can you talk a little about the eclectic score you created for the film? It was an interesting combination of musical choices that worked very well together.
BONELLO: I quickly decided to have at the same time some soul music from 1972 or 1973 and opera. I have a big collection of soul music, so that was quite easy for me. Once again, it’s a little Yves by day and Yves by night. And then, I did some music myself with synthesizers which brings the third part of the musical construction that I thought I would be missing. I went and used two synthesizers like pre-New Wave music, maybe a colder side of the musical aspect, because soul music and opera are very warm and I needed something to give it a harder edge.
What inspired the shift in time to 1989 and the introduction of Helmut Berger as the older Yves? What did that allow you to accomplish in terms of revealing how the fashion world was evolving with new designers like Jean Paul Gaultier?
BONELLO: That was the first image I had of the film. It’s an old man that remembers in a way. But I didn’t want to build the film like this and to open with this image. I like the jump in time. For me, the last hour of the film is like you enter this room and you have mirrors everywhere. Every mirror is like a reflection of Yves but it’s not the same image. It’s the moment where the film really gets a little mental and goes into his mind. From there, time explodes and there are some mental images – the snakes, him entering the painting of Marcel Proust’s room, and him as a child. Everything is like fireworks. It’s when the film goes from objective to subjective in a way.
How does the final film compare to what you originally envisioned?
BONELLO: I cannot answer that because it’s like a journey, so I travel with the film. The final film for me is the evidence of the film. I don’t go back and say, “Oh. I wanted to do that. I should have done that.” No. A film is something very alive and you really travel with it. There is a fantastic expression used by Jean-Luc Godard. When Godard has been asked that question, “Are you happy with your films?”, he’s said, “I am happily disappointed.” I really like this expression, because you cannot get out of the film and say, “Oh it’s a masterpiece!” And, at the same time, as I said, you travel with it. A film is always a mix between your possibility and your impossibility, but that’s what defines its existence.
What are you working on next that you’re excited about?
BONELLO: I’m working on something very different, very contemporary. It’s a film that takes place now in Paris. In English, it’s called Paris Is Happening. It’s about some young people between 17 and 20 that decide to put some bombs in the city.
Saint Laurent opens in LA & NY on May 8th.