VOL. MMXIII..No. 209

In Conversation | Thought Leaders and Iconoclasts

The Man, the Myth, the Legend: Director Bertrand Bonello and Actor Gaspard Ulliel on ‘Saint Laurent’



When Director Bertrand Bonello announced that he too would be making a film about designer Yves Saint Laurent, there were gasps and even threats to block it.


Saint Laurent was released in France only months after Director Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent. The latter film was “authorized” – a very loose term – but basically meaning that the late fashion designer’s lover and business partner, Pierre Bergé, agreed to support it both as advisor and by lending historic pieces from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent.


But Bonello was largely unfazed by Bergé’s snub and was relieved to be able to paint his own picture of the designer’s life. He cast Gaspard Ulliel in the title role, a seasoned French actor but one largely known in the U.S. for being the Bleu de Chanel spokesmodel and his role in Hannibal Rising.


When the film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival there were the expected murmurings and comparisons. Nevertheless the film garnering ten César Award nominations including Best Film, Best Director, and Best Actor. In the U.S., Saint Laurent was selected for France’s entry in the Best Foreign Language Film, but was not nominated.


We spoke with Bertrand Bonello and Gaspard Ulliel about Yves Saint Laurent’s struggles with depression and the creative brilliance that was all too often stifled by the business of fashion.


BERTRAND PELLEGRIN: This film draws a very stark line between the artist and the brand, but in the end you could say the brand consumes the man, Saint Laurent.


ACTOR GASPARD ULLIEL: The whole film is about this dialectic between art and commerce, you know? The economical aspect, the economical pressure becomes untenable for the character, and the artistic side of who he is. So yes, it is about branding because this specific decade is just the time when branding became so important for the fashion industry and it is also the beginning of the fashion world we know today. At that time, it was all very different. What strikes me is that for a fashion designer, you have to renew yourself constantly and today when you think about a fashion designer or couturier, they do maybe 5 different collections a year and you have to find these inspirations and ways to renew yourself all the time and this can be very exhausting and consuming.




BP: Was this part of the intention of this film, that this isn’t going to just be a film about a man consumed by drugs and alcohol, but remove the man, Saint Laurent, what is left?


DIRECTOR BERTRAND BONELLO: Yes, because one of the aspects of the film is how Yves is becoming “YSL” and I think in many ways he wanted that –


BP: At least in the beginning…


BONELLO: Yes but at the same time it kills him. There is a line in the film, he [Saint Laurent] says, ‘Am I just becoming a lipstick?’ and there is something very attractive about that for him but also very depressing, because he was a designer and an artist, and then he is something sold in a supermarket. He is a trademark.


BP: It’s a point where he says, “I’m sick of seeing myself.”


BONELLO: Yes. There is a shot in the film with Gaspard which I really love, he’s at his desk alone and he is looking at some colors for nail polish, and you do not know what it is he is thinking, but perhaps it is just, “Is this what I am now?” Yes, the brand ate the man.


{ “It is about branding because this specific decade is just the time when branding became so important for the fashion industry and it is also the beginning of the fashion world we know today.” – Gaspard Ulliel }


Photo by Pamela Gentile/San Francisco Film Society


BP: We start with very tight shots of the clothes and the process of design and then the clothes start to become more of an abstraction.Was this a creative intention or one made because you weren’t granted access to the actual dresses?


BONELLO: The thing is, I did not do the film to show the clothes of Yves Saint Laurent, for this we have magazines, we have other things where we can see that. I like to show them at the beginning of the film, in order to show the process, and then we have these two collections which were very important because they mean something, you need them as a storyteller. This is not a fashion film: this is a film about a character who makes fashion.


BP: It was perhaps also a way of showing that he was losing himself, he was creating so many collections, and facing so many of deadlines, that he lost touch with his creativity and himself.


BONELLO: That’s right, he had these constant deadlines and eventually so much anguish.


ULLIEL: But strangely, or logically, it is when he is the most confused and lost that he produces one of his best collections, like at the end of the movie, he named it one of the only collections he did that was inspired by painters, with this Mondrian geometrical shapes.



Photo by Pamela Gentile/San Francisco Film Society



Photo by Pamela Gentile/San Francisco Film Society


BONELLO: And so even if I had the real dresses, I would have done the same thing.


BP: As an actor inhabiting a character, was there something that you learned about Saint Laurent that you didn’t know before?


ULLIEL: I think I discovered everything about Saint Laurent as I started working on this character because I realized that I knew very little about him, prior to the start of the production, so it was really about the discovery of who this man was, and even discovering his work, this was not my generation. I knew some of the pieces like the woman’s Tuxedo and the Saharienne and stuff like this, but that’s very little compared to what he did, so I needed to immerse myself into all of these documents, readings and gathering information.

{ “This is not a fashion film: this is a film about a character who makes fashion.” – Bertrand Bonello }


Photo by Pamela Gentile/San Francisco Film Society


BP: And maybe also you needed to feel the alienation that he felt. I mean there’s that line “I love bodies without souls, because souls are everywhere.” I think that describes who he had become when he was at his worst.


ULLIEL: That’s what I think is interesting about this man and this artist, like many geniuses I think his insecurities and weaknesses made him great. Neurosis made him great. We are talking about someone who was born depressed, as Pierre Bergé described it. He was constantly going up and down and so this is what makes it fascinating for an actor to incarnate. It is all of these paradoxical aspects of the character. It’s not only about studying what is white or black, but all the shades of grey in-between, all of the colors in-between.


BP: Was that something that was difficult for you? Obviously filming had already begun on another film about Saint Laurent that had its own motives about what it was going to be about. How did you know where you wanted to start with what this film would ultimately be about?


BONELLO: You discover a film while you are making it. It’s like if you are in front of a mountain trying to sculpt something and make something appear, you take away you take away everything that doesn’t interest you and what’s left is the art.




BP: Did the film go in a different direction than you thought it would go in?


BONELLO: A film is something alive, it is not a dead object; it has to be alive so it’s like a sculpture, so you have ideas but after awhile, the most important thing is to watch your own movie and see what it is telling you.


BP: As the film progresses, Pierre Bergé becomes equal parts jealous of Saint Laurent and protective, he is fiercely proud of him. We see that he is in conflict about what he feels for him.  Does he love him or is he the businessman?


BONELLO: Well they did everything together. They were a couple, they created the brand, they became famous, they had a huge and beautiful art collection, and so it is a complex and huge story.



BP: But what did you want people to take away about Bergé?


BONELLO: For me my subject was very much Yves, it was not Pierre and Yves. When the film starts it is 1967 and they are a couple for 8 or 9 years. The brand has already been created so of course there is something very protective about him. At the same time that he [Bergé] saves him, he kills him.


BP: The scenes of the licensing deals in New York are so telling, we have the understanding that Bergé is a man who is very much about business and loves business.


BONELLO: But we are talking about two people who have a very strong character and strong personalities.


ULLIEL: And it’s also about one who has very strong and creative abilities and one who amazing business skills and the combination of the two made the brand succeed.


BONELLO: Of course Yves probably would not have been Yves Saint Laurent without Pierre and vice versa. It’s like a beast with two heads.


>> READ “A Tragic Genius: ‘Saint Laurent’ Exposes the Tensions Between Man and Brand.” Click Here.

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