Exclusive Interview: Bertrand Bonello Talks ‘SAINT LAURENT’

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Gaspard Ulliel checks out his garment in SAINT LAURENT. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Courtney Howard// Film Critic

This originally ran on VeryAware.com

In director Bertrand Bonello’s SAINT LAURENT, he spins convention on its head by spotlighting fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent’s most creative fertile years. Not structured at all like a traditional biopic, the film looks at the iconic pioneer’s loves, objects d’ arte and inner demons. Gaspard Ulliel gives a riveting and transformative performance in the role of the titular tortured genius.

At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, I spoke with the talented auteur about everything from why he chose Ulliel to play Yves, to the brand’s involvement in the film, to the designer’s legacy.

It’s so funny because your film isn’t a stereotypical biopic. Where did the idea come from to focus on the little sliver of Yves’ life. It was genius.

“Yes. You can not tell everything. I hesitated a long time on if I should concentrate on two days, three days, four months and I chose ten years. Within these ten years, you have everything important to say; in terms of life, in terms of creation and invention. Also I think it’s the most crazy and creative. These ten years were interesting for me – not only for Yves Saint Laurent’s life, but also the period of the 60’s and beginning of the 70’s. I preferred to concentrate on that and to treat it really well rather than to do many short scenes and his whole life.”

What was it about Gaspard that convinced you he was perfect for the role?

“The time we spent together before I gave my answer. I think of course there’s a huge resemblance but there wasn’t enough. We were searching for the same thing. We had the same idea of the film, of the character and what playing a living character should be. Not going into imitation. The more I got to know him, the more I was interested in him also. I could feel he could give something of himself that could be interesting and touching.”

What of Yves qualities did you want bring out with your film?

“Intuition – that’s for sure. Not just qualities but character traits. For example, there is a monster side of him which was interesting for me. The mix of his fragility and strength. Probably the fact that he burned himself for his work.”

What do you think may have helped contribute to Yves’ demons?

“I think it was the way he was living – very protected by his people around, by Pierre Berge and the environment. Quickly, this protection becomes a jail. In a way, I thought of the film as a jail movie. Very luxury jail, but still jail. There is very few scenes in the outside – maybe a couple. Otherwise, he’s in his studio, in nightclubs, in apartments. So the outside is away from him.”

I loved how you also took us into the inner workings of his atelier to see his creative process. The scene where transforms that one client was incredible.

“The actress is fantastic. It’s very difficult to in a quasi-sequence shot to start. I have a feeling she loses ten years just in her acting. It’s absolutely brilliant. When you read autobiographies on Yves Saint Laurent, you always have the sentence ‘Yves Saint Laurent transformed the woman.’ I was trying with one scene to do it in a very theoretical way. She changes not because of the clothes, just because of the way she’s looked at by the creator.”

Can we talk about the split screen between the fashion collection and the news footage? Fashion is reflective of what’s happening in the world.

“I wanted to show that of course we love him but he’s making dresses at a moment in the world where everything is changing. In a way, he’s cut from reality even though he has the intuition of the present time. I wanted to show this separation to say to the audience he’s a new fashion designer.”

I’m wondering about the wardrobe in the film. Were you able to go into the archives to find these pieces? Was the brand supportive of this movie?

“Not at all. We had a lot of trials. We re-did everything. We built a little atelier for haute couture with many, many people. For two months, we did the two collections you see – in ’71 and ’76 but also the clothes for the actors. We did it exactly the way they did it at the time. It was a huge work. It was fascinating. It allowed me to really understand the work.”

Lea Seydoux, Gaspard Ulliel and Aymeline Valade in SAINT LAURENT. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Lea Seydoux, Gaspard Ulliel and Aymeline Valade in SAINT LAURENT. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

I know you mentioned YVES SAINT LAURENT creatively freed you from making the traditional biopic.

“I knew that the other film, even though they started later, they would be released before. I knew the film was a classical biopic. I said to myself I don’t have to present…there are a lot of things I can take away. I can go much more into the heart of what interests me. If you have two films on the same subject, I think it’s possible the films can be very different. It allowed me to be a little more radical.”

What do you think it’s about Yves that draws us in?

“In the fashion world, he’s very important. You had Chanel, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent basically and after it’s something else. More than that, I think he’s a rock star. Yves put himself ‘en scene’ with this naked picture. He became as famous as a rock star. It’s a huge image.”

Gaspard mentioned he lost weight for the role. Was that something you asked him to do?

“We didn’t discuss that too much. Gaspard does sports so he had to lose some muscle to look more fragile. I just asked him to stop going to the gym. He decided to lose the weight to be someone else.”

Two other huge forces in Yves life were his muses Betty and Loulou. What stood out to you that Aymeline Valade and Lea Seydoux were right for these roles?

“I could have made the whole film about Yves and these two women but I went in another direction. What is important Yves is a kind of empire – he takes from them. When he sees Betty, he sees the allure. When he sees Loulou, he sees the fantasy. They helped him – brought him into the Saint Laurent style. After they became very close. Lea doesn’t look at all like Loulou Falaise, but I think she would be the modern version of Loulou. Also the aristocratic side that she has. For Aymeline, I needed someone who has this allure. Betty was the feminine double of Yves. Aymeline could be the feminine double of Gaspard.”

At the end of the film, we see a different actor playing Yves. Was it always your plan to not use Gaspard in prosthetics?

“Yes. I don’t like the makeup to get older. Otherwise, I just see the makeup artist’s work. I don’t see the actor. Also I needed someone who has much more weight of life. Helmut was the perfect choice for me.”

SAINT LAURENT is available on DVD/ Blu-ray on September 22.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.