Inside 'Saint Laurent,' Exploring the Dark Side of Genius

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday May 8, 2015

French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello does not shy away from the personal life and sexual proclivities of Yves Saint Laurent, one of the world's most famous fashion designers, in his ravishing new film, "Saint Laurent." Instead, the director shows us that the icon's hedonism and voracious sexual appetite significantly shaped who he was as a creative force in the fashion world.

"It was important for the film," Bonello explains, "It was Yves' life. You have Yves by day and Yves by night. For me it's difficult to treat fashion and creation without having the nightlife included, because it's related. It's not a thing you have to hide...including the way he lived, his homosexuality, it's all a part of the man and his life."

The movie's frank, edgy depiction of the titular character's self-destructive, depressive dark side is one of the most intriguing aspects of a film rich with bold and divisive elements.

Lost 30 pounds

Bonello and star, Gaspard Ulliel were recently in New York City promoting the feature for its U.S. release and I had the pleasure of sitting down with the artists.

I wondered if the director was at all pressured to tame his film.

"Producers asked me if I would be softer (on the sexual depiction), but I said no. I'm French!" Bonello laughs the idea of altering his work. "We are very lucky, French directors, because we have final cut."

The nudity and explicit sexual situations did not daunt Ulliel. "For me it was totally legitimate if you think about the character and his life. Yes, I can be a bit reserved or modest in my private life but when it comes to such scenes, it just feels like it's not your own body anymore, that you're exposing the body of the character.

"I actually lost nearly 30 pounds for the part, not only to get closer to Yves' silhouette, but also to arrive on set in a body that wasn't mine anymore and that helped me better uncover Yves' grace and flexibility. And it surely affected the way I occupied space and moved. So, when it came to the frontal nude scenes, which obviously were not my first nude scenes (he laughs since he's appeared naked several times onscreen before), I just think of it as not being me showing my body to all those people--even if it is in the end. It's the same for the kiss. It just feels natural when you are in your character's mind, feeling his emotions."

A double life

One of the themes the movie examines is how YSL led a double life (as many public figures do), his public persona/fashion maverick self vs. the private, libidinously adventurous Saint Laurent, the latter informing the former.
I wondered if Ulliel reached from his own personal experiences to draw on playing such a complicated character, especially for the more provocative scenes.

"Yes. Even if they're not exactly the same you use your own memories and emotions and translate them to what is needed. There's something very intimate about yourself where you're just uncovering so much deep emotion. The nudity is not only literal, it's figurative. I exposed a lot of myself in this role-even the dark, depressive side. I'm not saying I'm like him, not at all, but you have to reach for those darker sides of yourself to give it to the character."

Sometimes the more self-destructive parts were overwhelming for an actor as fully committed as Ulliel.

"It's very demanding to go to those dark places for such a long period of time. It's one of those parts where you want to stay focused the entire time. So, after a day of shooting, I would go back to my house and I was just scared to lose the character so I would try and remain in character the entire time. In the end it affected my mind. When you portray such a tortured man it can haunt you afterwards... I'm sure there's a lot of Yves that is still here (inside me)."

Couldn't change a light bulb

"After the shooting I tried to forget about the experience and become myself again-regaining the weight was especially hard. In the end it's quite a quick process to lose weight, but it was harder to regain it."

I remind him that it's usually the opposite for most people that aren't actors in seriously perfect shape. He laughs a knowing laugh and I realized just how insulated actors can be from the real world, just like YSL, whose own mother worried that he couldn't "change a light bulb."

Much of YSL's mom's concern came from her knowing how fragile her son was and how he was prone to anxiety and torment, which led him to do some shocking things, albeit with the aid of drugs. Bonello does not shy away from Saint Laurent's addictions (substance and otherwise), quite the opposite, he portrays YSL's life during his most famous period (late '60s/early '70s) in a shockingly honest manner, but without judgment.
Ironically, Bonello wasn't initially crazy about the idea of making a biopic on anyone, let alone one of the French fashion gods, but he soon changed his mind. "I quickly saw the huge opportunity of doing it, visually, in terms of novelistic storytelling. This character is really a character from a novel for me. And the opportunity to make a film set in the late 60s, early 70s really interested me."

A fruitful period

One of the filmmaker's key decisions (along with co-screenwriter, Thomas Bidegain) was to focus on ten years in YSL's life-his most fruitful and tumultuous, from 1967 to 1977 (a jump in time occurs later in the film). In addition, they chose a non-linear structure, which was carefully scripted. "You have to write that. If you wait until you are in the editing room to figure it out, it becomes a patchwork."

Controversy began even before the script was finished when another film, "Yves Saint Laurent," directed by Jalil Lespert, was announced. "Naturally, it complicated matters, and we had to overcome many obstacles to ensure this film got made," Bonello offers. "I had no desire to botch my film simply to wage a sterile war. I came to terms with it, telling myself that another, more official picture could take care of the obligatory biopic aspects, thus relieving me of them. To some extent, Lespert's film gave me greater freedom."

In the end the Lespert project might have beaten Bonello's in terms of its French release, but it was "Saint Laurent" that was selected to compete at Cannes in 2014 and chosen as France's Oscar submission for the Foreign-Language Film Award last year. (Strangely, it didn't even make the short list.) Both films received a slew of Cesar nominations but neither won the coveted Best Picture. And only one (to date) is being given a full release here in the U.S., "Saint Laurent."

Casting essential

Casting was essential to the film's success. Bonello's first decision was selecting Helmut Berger (Luchino Visconti's great love) to portray the older Yves. He then focused on the lead.

"I met many people (for Yves). Of course there is a huge resemblance between Gaspard and Yves. But for me that was not enough, I had to be sure he was the perfect actor. I didn't want someone who was just going to do an imitation. After 2-3 months of discussion I became certain he was the right guy."

Ulliel had a bit of history with YSL. "Ten years ago, when I worked with Gus Van Sant on 'Paris, je t'aime,' he came to me with the idea of doing a film on Yves, as a potential younger version. But the film was never made and I kept looking back thinking it's such a shame because he would have been such an amazing character to portray. Ten years later, I read in the paper that there was a movie about to be made about Yves, directed by Jalil Lespert. I told my agent I need to meet this director. He had just started to write the script, but said he would be happy to meet me in 6 months. My agent phoned me the next day to tell me I had a meeting the following week with Bertrand Bonello who is actually preparing another film about YSL...he had finished his script. So we met... but he didn't offer me the role straightaway... Finally he phoned me one morning and said he wanted to work with me. I was thrilled because I am a big fan of his cinema and this is the kind of character an actor only gets to play a few times in a career."

Sexual chemistry

The director cast the other two males, Jérémie Renier and Louis Garrel via the chemistry they sparked with Ulliel. "The idea is to make couples. So it was about Jérémie and Gaspard and Louis and Gaspard. So I asked Gaspard to come to all the screen tests with all the actors to see them together."

Bonello's method proves masterful since both couples do what Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan failed miserably at in "Fifty Shades of Grey:" oozing pure carnal lust, especially Ulliel and Garrel.

The relationship between YSL and his lover/business manager, Pierre Berge (Renier) is a bit more casual and vanilla (yet still enticing), but it's when YSL finally meets and falls under the spell of decadent model Jacques de Bauscher (Garrel) that the screen ignites. It's a titillatingly taboo, boundary-pushing sexual relationship, graphically depicted. And as YSL becomes more and more obsessed with de Bauscher, he falls deeper into a Satyricon-like, orgiastic abyss.

Capturing the essence of both relationships was a challenge for Ulliel, but he was certainly up for the task.
"With Jeremie, it was easy because we're very close friends in real life, we've been friends for more than 10 years-we had this intimacy straightaway," he shares.
"With Louis it was different because we barely knew each other before we started shooting but somehow it soon felt as easy as it was with Jeremie. I remember all those shooting days with Louis were so smooth and so graceful... Louis is a great partner to have on the set because he's very inventive, always provoking new things--very inclined to improvisation and surprising his fellow actors."

Lust or love?

Bonello adds: "Yves and Jacques' love story developed in editing: primarily atmospheric scenes were drawn out because something wonderful happened between Gaspard and Louis. It was almost enough to set up the camera and watch them. It's important to take the film in a new direction when particularly graceful things occur."

So, was it love or lust between Yves and Jacques?

Ulliel: "I think Saint Laurent would have been ready to give it all up for de Bauscher. He was clearly a shady character, but he gave Yves something extra. Jacques produces a break in the character's curve. He pushes Yves to the limits of his personality and introduces him to a wilder and occasionally darker sexuality. He carries a threat, suspense... All of which causes Saint Laurent to reflect on his life and his art. By seeking closure after their affair, he is forced to bounce back, to go looking for the same passion elsewhere, the same excitement, not only through drugs but also through his work."

"Saint Laurent" is a highly ambitious, overly long (150 minutes) opus that boasts startling deviations in the narrative including a brilliant 8-minute boardroom scene that Bonello sees as, "the best thing I've done in my life." In addition YSL's fashion designs are sharply contrasted with the political climate of the time. Bonello uses a split screen to great effect and captures the volatility of the late '60s/early '70s in each carefully designed sequence.

The influences of Scorsese and Visconti are obvious, although Bonello says he was more influenced by "painters, music and pictures" of the time.
But the enigma of Yves Saint Laurent remains, a deliberate act on the part of the collaborators.

"His life was at once dreamy and pathetic," Bonello says. "He's someone who had everything to be happy. And he was not. Was it the life he dreamed of? Yes. But it made him really unhappy."

Preserving the mystery

Ulliel adds, "Most of the time biopics try to explain why this man was so great, what made him great, and in the end it just kills the mystery. And when you talk about such an iconic figure you just have to preserve his mystery. And that's what I like with this film. In the end he's even more mysterious than he was before."
Ulliel appeared in one American film, "Hannibal Rising," in 2007, and has been reticent to (but not entirely dismissive of) working in Hollywood again. "I realize the real question is: at what cost. I'd love to have a career in the United States but only on projects, roles that are interesting and appealing. The idea is to not just work in Hollywood regardless of the quality of the film or the role. So I'm trying to be patient and to wait for the right project. I know it can be a very long process and it may never happen, but I'd rather wait than just accept the wrong projects. (After "Hannibal") I kept receiving offers from the U.S. but not on very interesting projects."
The actor is very excited about his next project: a role in writer/director Xavier Dolan's "It's Only the End of the World," co-starring Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux, Nathalie Baye and Vincent Cassel. Adapted from a '80s French play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, the film is about a young writer who learns he has an incurable disease and goes back home to tell his family about it. Dysfunction soon rears its ugly head. But after embodying YSL, I'm sure Ulliel can handle a little more anguish and torment.

"Saint Laurent" goes into limited U.S. release on May 8, 2015.

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Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute