Oh couture! Jalil Lespert chronicles turbulent life of fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent


Of all the great fashion designers of the last century—Vionnet, Chanel, Balenciaga—no one dominated the second half of those years like Yves Saint Laurent, and Jalil Lespert has made a breathtakingly beautiful and moving biopic about him. He had the incredible good fortune to find the perfect, charming and shyly charismatic actor, Pierre Niney, to slip chameleon-like into the designer's skin. But, far from being a solo turn, the movie is also about the relationship between Saint Laurent and his lover and business partner, Pierre Berge (Guillaume Gallienne), whom he met in 1958 and remained with until his death 50 years later. Their rise to the top of the fashion heap, marked by intense creative fire as well as the burnout brought on by the excesses of the 1970s and Saint Laurent's destructively delicate, too-sensitive-to-live neuroses, is played out in the most intoxicatingly luxe of settings, often accompanied by a thumping, carnal disco beat. The Weinstein Co. opens Yves Saint Laurent in the U.S. on June 25th.
Jalil Lespert: I had this desire to tell not only a great story, but a very big French story with a lot of breadth. I myself love fashion and have a lot of friends in the business, so I live it every day. I grew up in Paris, so it's something very natural—fashion and me—and I wanted to tell the story.

Film Journal International: Yes, fashion is an alluring, obviously photogenic subject, but it’s so hard to get right on film, as you have beautifully. For every Funny Face, there's something like Prêt-à-Porter. Robert Altman was obviously a great director, but he also obviously knew nothing about fashion.
JL: Thank you for the compliment, but I love Robert Altman and I did not see Prêt-à-Porter because I didn't want to feel overwhelmed by his work. I wanted to be independent, but it was very important to work with Saint Laurent's family—by that I mean Pierre Berge and the Saint Laurent Foundation. It had to be a close collaboration, first to be able to shoot the dresses, and especially to show all the work that went into them. I wanted my actor to meet Saint Laurent's intimates like Betty Catroux and to be able to go though the Foundation and be coached on how the drawing was done, how materials should be touched, so he would have a clear idea about that.

We worked five months before shooting, not only rehearsals, but with all the actors. Pierre Niney worked a lot alone on his voice, because the voice was very important. I didn't want to just make an imitation, and the voice of Saint Laurent was really specific. It said a lot about his shyness and, of course, his friends because he was like a king, like the little prince. I really wanted Niney to actually draw everything, which he did, and be able to improvise talking about materials and dresses. He worked a lot with a teacher/designer from the Chambre Syndicale.

FJI: I knew Yves' muse and collaborator, the incredible, incredibly glamorous Loulou de la Falaise, and it was so great to see her portrayed in your movie.
JL: I have a friend who's a very close friend of Berge and when he saw that actress, and even the actor who played her husband Thadée Klossowski, he was very moved by them and said, “Oh my God, they are so close, it’s incredible!" and we were quite happy it went so well.

FJI: Did you ever meet Saint Laurent or Loulou?
JL: Unfortunately, no, but I did meet his other great friend, Betty Catroux. Today, she's really free in her mind and she's kind of a rebel. It's funny because she and Berge fought so much, as Pierre was against her and Yves for doing so many naughty things together. And now that Yves is no longer there, they are always together, very best friends, a real little couple, and it's very moving to meet them now. And they still live for Yves.

FJI: I remember sitting in the Café Flore in Paris and I was told that Karl Lagerfeld was in his car outside and would not come into the restaurant until Berge left. I watched the one leave and then the other enter and it was like two kings.
JL: [chuckles] Yes, there's a big private story between them. It's quite sad in a way because they had a great experience of life together. But you are right, they are like kings now.

Pierre was very moved by the film, especially by Pierre Niney. He said to him, "You're an amazing actor and I don't know how you did it, but you are Yves!" And he said to me, quite mysteriously, but I think I understood, "This is it. It's done. Yves left a few years ago and it was too soon to do a movie before this one. But this tells me that it's finished. Yves is gone." That was a very moving moment for me.

FJI: The actress playing Yves' early muse, Victoire Doutreleau, was just enchanting, the epitome of the irresistibly chic and alluring French woman the whole world adores and emulates.
JL: That's Charlotte Le Bon. She's a French Canadian actress and I think she's becoming a great star in France and maybe in the States, too, because she's started shooting with U.S. directors like Spielberg. We were trying to find the right, good actress who could play a model from the 1950s. She used to be a model and is a great actress, so she was just perfect. I was very lucky to find her.

FJI: Your depiction of Karl Lagerfeld, played by Nikolai Kinski, is such an intriguing contrast to Saint Laurent. He was more of a tough survivor, stronger and maybe more commercially minded.
JL: Yes, he was exactly the opposite. It's so weird that they were once such friends, and incredible that nobody knew it except people from fashion. I really wanted you to be able to see Karl, as I have a lot of respect for him. I don't know if he's seen the film, but friends of his told me that the day we opened, someone he knows saw the movie and called him to say, "You don't have to worry. It's a great movie and your character is great.”

FJI: And I loved that you included the devastating character of Jacques de Bascher, a true homme fatale if there ever was one, who was lovers with both Lagerfeld and Saint Laurent.
JL: Yeah. I found out everything about him. I really wanted to talk about Yves' genius through his activities, which had some danger to them, and it’s a real story so I had to talk about Jacques. The actor who plays him, Xavier Lafitte, is not famous in France, but a great actor, coming from the theatre.

FJI: How did you find Niney? Was there a big casting call?
JL: I know so many actors but don't like to have auditions. I know almost everybody in Paris and they told me that there's this new genius at the Comédie Française. I saw pictures of him, which were close to Yves, and also saw the same natural elegance there. I then saw his audition film for another film and felt that he was also very smart, funny and had this kind of impertinence that Yves had in life, so he maybe had something of his soul, also. We met and after maybe 30 seconds I realized that he was my Yves and asked him to make a photo shoot dressed as Yves at end of the 1960s. Then I was definitely sure and showed the pictures to my producers, because nobody knew him before. I told them that they did not need to have a great star but a great actor, and the star was the movie about Yves. So now this movie has made him a star and he's quite famous in France and I'm quite proud of that.

FJI: How was your film received in France?
JL: It was a huge success, which we didn't expect so much. We were very happy, of course, but I had been afraid that it was too Parisian a topic and didn't know if the middle class would like it so much. I tried to make the least snobbish movie about such a genius so he should be known by everybody.

FJI: Your film looks so beautiful. The world of high fashion is incredibly opulent, which is so difficult to capture, as anything even a little bit cheap-looking is disastrous. What was your budget?
JL: Not a big budget—7.8 million euros, which is not so much. So we worked hard to make it beautiful, and I have to say my own team and of course my DP were amazing. That factor was very important for me, and for Yves in particular. His universe was so beautiful and elegant that I really wanted to be able to talk about that, to understand a little bit about what was beautiful in his world. I'm not sure I completely achieved it, but I did my best.

We shot for 40 days, a very short schedule, but we got to film in Saint Laurent's actual home in Marrakesh. We recreated everything else, except the last catwalk show, which was in the real place, showing all of his collections together.

FJI: How did you feel about Yves once this project was completed?

JL: Well, I think he was a genius, the kind of person who had such a sharp vision of life that living it was very difficult for him. He was impossibly sensitive, completely addicted to work, drugs, sex, everything. But he had to go through all those things, otherwise life was too boring for him. Unfortunately, he burned himself like that but he had to do that to be a genius and create so many extraordinary things. I tried to understand him and not judge that.

Pierre's story was also fascinating to me. How could he live with such a man? Of course, he's a very smart person, tough, a fighter, but also a lover. Being in love with such a huge character was difficult, certainly, and that's the only question I asked him: "How did you do it, to live this love story and support him?" And he told me, "Well, I never stopped admiring Yves Saint Laurent. I met so many smart people in my life, but he was the smartest guy I ever met. A genius, amazing, every day was a new world, so I never stopped being fascinated by him. But, of course, it was difficult."

Their love story was also the best way for me to talk about this genius and try to get close to him without burning myself. When you make a movie about such a genius like Saint Laurent, Jimi Hendrix, Rimbaud or any artist, you cannot just shoot how they dress or draw or write. It's boring after a while. You have to tell a story and for me, Milos Forman's Amadeus helped me very much because he talked about Mozart through Salieri, which was very smart. In my movie, Berge is like Salieri, so you can identify with him. I'm not a genius like Saint Laurent, but I could identify myself with Berge. In this way, you maybe understand a little bit about Saint Laurent, but there is always a part you cannot understand. It is too mysterious, and it has to stay like that.

FJI: What are you working on next?
JL: I am creating a series for TV about Versailles and Louis XIV. We haven't cast it yet, but we are doing it with the BBC, so we will do it with a lot of English actors. It's a huge, amazing spectacle and Louis is such an incredible character.

FJI: Thank you so much for a wonderful film and for this interview. I'm sure the film will do very well when it opens here.
JL: I hold my fingers to bring me luck. We do that in France.