Yves & Pierre: 'L'Amour Fou' recalls a fashion icon and a fabled love story

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In the new Sundance Selects release L'Amour Fou, director Pierre Thoretton has created a powerfully moving portrait of one of the great love stories of the last century, that between the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner in life and business, Pierre Bergé.

The two met when Saint Laurent was working at the house of Christian Dior, where he became head designer at the age of 21 when Dior suddenly died of a heart attack in 1957. It was love at first sight for the men, a love which sustained itself through 52 years of overwhelming success, riches and fame as well as sorrow, brought on by Saint Laurent's manic depression, which led to erratic behavior, drugs and alcohol addiction.

I met the handsome, charming Thoretton in the appropriately posh Trump Towers Soho, where interview space was shared by a non-related fashion shoot which involved Real Housewife of New York Alex McCord and spouse Simon van Kampen swanning about in clothes which would have made Saint Laurent blanch, but only reminded me of the classic timeliness of his fashions which still exert such a strong influence on the way people dress after more than half a century.

Film Journal International: Thank you for such a beautiful film. It was one of the best treatments of the fashion world I have ever seen. You really caught what lies under all the alluring glamour: the incredible pressure which can drive a man like Saint Laurent crazy.
Pierre Thoretton: Oh, thanks! Yes, everybody thinks it's like a constant party, but the pressure is incredible, horrible, and you're always in survival mode. It's also very cutthroat and a friendship lasts as long as the timing of a handshake. Bergé was somewhat able to shield Saint Laurent from this, dealing with the financial side of things.

FJI: You gave us such insight into these men. How well I recall all those years when gossip would fly about Saint Laurent and his condition and/or craziness. What inspired you to make the film?
PT:
I wanted to understand how a love story could sustain itself over 52 years, especially in this world of fashion where the pressure is so intense.

FJI: How did you approach Bergé?
PT:
He's very pragmatic, but I already knew him. So you don't want to come in like a fox into the henhouse. There was no point in trying to seduce or charm him. All you can do is ask questions and wait for his answers. I'd known him for about ten years. I was a photographer and, although Bergé never bought any of my work, he helped to arrange a gallery show for me. I was enormously touched when he said he couldn't have made this movie without me.
I met him through the grandmother of my son, Catherine Deneuve [longtime Saint Laurent intimate and client, whose daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, was involved with Thoretton]. An exhibition I was working on fell through because of money, and she put me in touch with him, as he has always helped young artists. We became friends and would have lunch regularly in Saint Germain. But Catherine did not help me with getting this film made. Knowing her didn't help at all, because Pierre Bergé is not at all into networking or forming a network. He is like a 15th-century myth.

FJI: I know. I was once sitting in the Café de Flore in Paris and the designer Karl Lagerfeld was there. Someone told me that Bergé was in his car outside, waiting to come in, but would not until Lagerfeld left. Sure enough, when Lagerfeld exited, he entered the restaurant. It was like seeing Louis XIV and Louis XV in action. But he also comes across in the film as something of a poet, very sensitive and literate and beautifully articulate.
PT:
Everything I learned about him and Yves touched me. You know, I actually wrote a script. I'm completely self-taught as a filmmaker and I didn't really know what a documentary was. I wanted to do it my way and what I like most is telling a story, so I wrote a script where I told their story and had written dialogue that I had with Pierre Bergé. Of course, when we started the shooting, none of the answers were what I thought they would be.
From the moment he said yes, he gave me and my crew such freedom in terms of the archives. It was almost too much. In fact, aside from the interviews, he never came to the archives or editing. He stood outside of that. I am immensely grateful and thank him so much for that freedom, which is something I don't think I'll ever find again, even in a fiction film.

FJI: What was his reaction to the film? You must have been so nervous!
PT:
He was very moved, and it was also very moving to see this strong man so touched. You can imagine how nervous I was. But he flew to the Toronto Film Festival, and I was sitting in the same row of the theatre, watching him watch it. It got a standing ovation, and people came over to congratulate me, which they would never do in France, with the sense of social caste there.

FJI: How was the reaction to the film in France?
PT:
It went well in France, and the reaction was very good. But the thing about France is that you have a lot of people who feel they know more about Bergé and Saint Laurent than they know themselves. Some of the journalists put in personal opinions about situations, or evened out their accounts with Bergé or Saint Laurent. It was payback, which I couldn't do anything about.

FJI: How long did it take to make this?
PT:
Two years. The editing took a little more than six months, six months for shooting, and one year for research. The archives were not in the Saint Laurent Foundation, but came from this special building, a hangar, all in boxes that we went through. Nothing was classified—Bergé had begun accumulating anything and everything, which was just put in boxes, from the first day that he met Saint Laurent. We were able to organize and classify everything, which is now in the Foundation.
There were 200,000 drawings alone and all the account books, from the first client who ever came in, with a drawing of the dress, the amount of material necessary to make the dress, the price and delivery date. Fifty years of that, a fashion and social history of the world: queens, movie stars, millionairesses. I'd like to make a book of what we found.

FJI: Their houses in Paris, Deauville and Marrakesh were magnificent. And then, on top of everything else, Bergé is a licensed pilot and you show him flying.
PT:
I had been to Morocco before, but when I see the film, I realize what immense luck I had with the whole thing, to be able to spend time in these incredible homes. They were the backbone of the film, and I think the Marrakesh house meant the most to Bergé, for the peace which Yves was able to find there.
Berge is a very good helicopter pilot. I rode with him, and from time to time, he also flies his own jet. It says so much about him, that incredible brain, control and discipline he has.

FJI: Does he have a lover now?
PT:
There is a friend, but it's a little complicated and I really can't talk to you about this.

FJI: And then there are the famous Saint Laurent muses, Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Catroux. I met Loulou at Studio 54 on the night of the launch of Saint Laurent's Opium perfume. She had escaped to the balcony from Yves, Halston and all these other swells, and we had a delightful time talking. She came across in your film as real and lovely as she was back then.
PT:
I love her, and Betty. These are portraits of women who are amazing and not at all alike. Loulou helped Yves so much in his work and Betty, well, they were the bad boy and girl of fashion.

FJI: I loved the music, which was so haunting and apropos.
PT:
That was done by a friend of mine, Côme Aguilar. The music was very important to me, to evoke the melancholy of the past and the tension of the present, nostalgic, like a ritornello, but with the tempo hard that keeps you rooted in the reality of right now. The music represents a perfect circle, like the lives of Bergé and Saint Laurent.

FJI: And how fortuitous that their incredible art collection was being packed up and sold at auction while you were filming!
PT:
I have so many hours of footage that I could do a film totally about the packing. Bergé originally wanted to put it all into a museum where it would be shown along with Saint Laurent's fashions, but that proved too complicated to execute. The collection was really the key for me to his film: how these men chose certain pieces together, visiting galleries and dealers, which represented their shared lives and wealth and success, as all of it grew.

FJI: Did you ever meet Saint Laurent?
PT:
Yes, but we didn't really interact at all. It was not snobbery—he was tremendously shy. Until I met him, I never understood what that kind of fame could be like. And to see it was such a reflection of society: He had the kind of extraordinary fame of a Marilyn Monroe wherever he went.
Once, we passed each other in the hall of his couture house. He stopped, opened my jacket and opened the button of my shirt and adjusted the collar, without saying a word. From then on, I've never closed that button.