Elegant innovation wrapped in painful vices defined the life and career of the iconic French designer Yves Saint Laurent. Becoming the Christian Dior’s creative successor at 21-years-old was merely a hint of his groundbreaking vision. Fashion was an obsessive force that tortured him and saved him from despair in several occasions. In Jalil Lespert’s biographical film, Saint Laurent is played by Pierre Niney , who sports a striking resemblance to him. Paying homage to the artists wearable artistry, the garments are often at the center of action; however, Lespert’s focus is the turbulent romance between Pierre Bergé (played by Guillaume Gallienne) and the drug-addicted genius. As unflattering as the portrayal can seem at times, the intent is to portray truth. It never diminishes the magnificent works Yves Saint Laurent envisioned, but it also doesn’t try to hide the perpetual distress and instability that marked his existence.
Director Jalil Lespert talked to us from New York about his relationship with fashion, turning icons into mortals, and his choice of making the designer’s romantic life the driving force for his project.
Aguilar: How did you get involved with Yves Saint Laurent’s story, where you always a interested in fashion to some degree?
Lespert: I’m Parisian so I know about fashion. I know a lot of people who work in fashion. My wife, for example, she used to be a model, so I’m very close to fashion. However, I was not fascinated by fashion, but I really wanted to make a great French story. I was wondering if it was going to be fictional or a biopic but I didn’t know. While looking for a great story I suddenly realized that fashion was quite interesting to me. It is well known almost everywhere in the world that Paris is the fashion capital. I don’t know why, but I though about Yves Saint Laurent and realized that nobody had done a narrative movie about him before. I read everything about him, I saw all the documentaries on him and I realized that it was the movie I wanted to make and the story I wanted to tell. I just dove into it.
Aguilar: Your approach is not that of a traditional "cradle-to-grave" biopic. Why did you decide to depict such a specific side of Yves Saint Laurent's life?
Lespert: First of all, I decided to only deal with the first 20 years of his career because for me it was the most interesting period of his career. I really wanted it to end with the runway because I knew that I wanted to talk about creation and I wanted to show his masterpieces. I realized that these 20 years of work were also the 20 years of love with Pierre Bergé. The combination of both was the foundation for my script. I wanted to talk about Yves Saint Laurent through Pierre’s eyes and memory.
Aguilar: How difficult was to obtain access to the designer’s archives in order to research for the project?
Lespert: I needed to talk to Pierre Bergé because their relationship was the foundation of the script. We met and I had to ask him. I didn’t know if it was Ok for me to say, “Hello, I’m a young director, I want to make a movie about Yves Saint Laurent and it’s going to talk about your love story too. And, by the way, I will need to work with you and the foundation because I need to show the dresses, the drawings, everything. Therefore I need full access to the archives.” He said, “Yes,” so I was very lucky [Laughs]
Aguilar: How did the process of choosing the particular dresses you wanted to use work? Did you have a team that helped you select them, or a certain point of reference, or was it your intuition?
Lespert: No, I worked with Madeline Fontaine , she is my costume designer. I’ve worked with her in all of my films. She is a fantastic costume designer. She has worked in many great films; for example, she has been Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s costume designer as well. She knows a lot about fashion history. We did research, and we worked in collaboration with the foundation. We chose the most important pieces like the Mondrian or the tuxedos. I wanted to include a few runways, and it was important that each one told something about the story, and my movie is a love story. I wanted to talk about the couple through the runways.
At the beginning we have the first runway that Yves Saint Laurent did as designer. He created a style and he met Pierre, it represents the meeting between the two. In the second one he unveils his first collection for his brand YSL. At this time it is all a big mess, they are all a bit hysterical. They are just like a young couple that is trying to show that they can be a great pair if they succeed. The last runway, which is an achievement, for me is his best collection. Because at this time Yves was really bad very tired and very sick, Pierre and Yves almost ate each other, they break up, and finally they find each other again thanks to creation of this collection. I really wanted to show this because it’s the truth.
Aguilar: Looking at pictures of the real life Yves Saint Lauren and comparing them with Pierre Niney in the film, the resemblance is uncanny. What drew you to him enough to believe he could pull off such a captivating performance?
Lespert: I was very lucky. Before the first time I saw Pierre Niney, I had heard about him because I love actors, and I know who the important young actors in Paris are. Then I saw a picture of him in a magazine, and I knew there was something there because he was wearing glasses and he had this sort of elegance to him. I asked my casting director to show me some readings he had done for another movie, and after thirty seconds I knew he had the role. He was able to bring life to this movie because he is a smart actor. He could be very funny like Yves Saint Laurent was, and he has a dark side like him as well. He is very smart. It was important to have an actor who is already very smart because you can’t play being smart if you are not [Laughs]. I knew I needed an actor who would be able to play a genius, which means a lot. I had this kind of crush with him immediately.
Aguilar: As a director, what was the process with your actors to create versions of these characters that felt human and relatable?
Lespert : The first thing I did with both of the main actors, Guillaume Gallienne and Pierre Niney, was do readings during two weeks. We were very involved already because the script was not so bad [Laughs], and some scenes were very moving. It was important to be able to break the ice and to understand that they were human beings just like you and I. We were talking about real feelings and they were not perfect people. We had to break everything apart to make our own story, our own movie. We were able to bring emotion and make a real movie not something out of a wax museum or a Wikipedia movie. That was not the purpose.
Aguilar: Did Pierre Bergé get to see the film? What was his reaction?
Lespert: He was very moved actually. I showed him the movie when it was not completely finished. I was terribly scary for me, it was worse than having stage fright. To show my film to someone that is still alive, it was really weird. I was very lucky that someone like him trusted me enough to give me the responsibility of talking about his own life, his love story, and the person that he was in love with for 50 years. He was simple a human being who saw his life and his companion on screen. It was a very special moment, a wonderful moment.
Aguilar: Did you talk to any other fashion personalities that could give you more insight on Yves Saint Laurent's life? People like Karl Lagerfeld perhaps?
Lespert: Not really. I met several people who worked with Yves Saint Laurent, but mostly people from his work family like Betty Catroux or Dominique Deroche who was his closest assistant for over 40 years, as well as some seamstresses. I didn’t want to use too many people. For example, for Karl Lagerfeld, it would have been difficult to explain deeply the meaning of my film and the fact that I wanted to talk about Jacques de Bascher . It was a touchy subject, so I preferred to read from the biographies, for example one called The Beautiful Fall by an American journalist. He talks a lot about Yves and Karl, but I didn’t meet everybody unfortunately.
Aguilar: Now that you’ve finished the film and after getting to know Yves Saint Laurent through your research, what image of him do you have?
Lespert: For me, Yves Saint Laurent is a hero because he fought his whole life against illness. Maybe the only way to fight this illness for him was to make it positive with creation. Otherwise he would have been lonely or in the hospital. He had so many issues with alcohol, drugs, and everything, this explains a lot about his necessity to create. Great creators like Yves Saint Laurent or Jimmi Hendrix; they are people who are so smart and so sensitive. They have such a sharp vision of life that everyday life is complicated for them. They are moved and shocked with so many things that they have to make it positive with creation.