Indie Focus

How 'Saint Laurent' fashions a film odyssey for a designer who changed how women dress

'The most important thing was not to explain #SaintLaurent...but rather what it cost him every day to be him'

In a scene near the end of the film "Saint Laurent," a group of newspaper editors is scrambling to write an obituary of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, responding to a false rumor that he has died. Among those in the scene are the film's director, Bertrand Bonello, and his co-screenwriter, Thomas Bidegain.

"I realized when you work on a biopic, it's like a journalist doing an obituary. You have two hours to say something about the life of someone," Bonello said recently, adding that he hoped to find an alternative to the more typically flat, linear recounting of a life.

His film captures a tumultuous period when Saint Laurent's life and work were inextricably intertwined, launching the fashion designer to the level of a superstar. Though there are moments before and after, the main story of the film covers the years 1967 to 1976, as Saint Laurent became one of the leading figures of the international fashion world. While Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) has an ongoing relationship with his business partner and lover, Pierre Berge (Jeremie Renier), he also engages in an affair with dandy socialite Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel).

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In capturing the seductive tumult of crowded nightclubs alongside the isolation and anguish of an artist alone and the exuberant bursts of the shows, Bonello's film becomes an examination of creativity, commerce and the struggle to reconcile the two. He is portrayed as creating and carousing with his longtime muses Loulou de la Falaise (Léa Seydoux) and Betty Catroux (Aymeline Valade). Later in the film, an older, ruminative Saint Laurent is played by Helmut Berger. (Saint Laurent died in 2008 at age 71.)

Shot on 35 millimeter by cinematographer Josée Deshaies for a sensuous, jewel-toned vibrancy, the film moves back and forth in time with a dazzling structure that becomes more and more sophisticated as it goes along. As the perspective seems to slip inside the reflections of Saint Laurent, the story exists as both a present tense and a memory.

"For me it's more of an odyssey into the mind of an artist," Ulliel said. "And as the story progresses, it goes further into his mind. The way Bertrand plays with time and chronology, for me it was a direct influence of Proust, the way he shuffles time. It's a brilliant way to tell this story."

Opening Friday, "Saint Laurent" first premiered in the main competition at last year's Cannes Film Festival. It was France's official submission for the foreign language Academy Award and was nominated for 10 Cesars, the equivalent of France's Oscars. In multiple categories, it was up against another movie on the fashion designer, Jalil Lespert's more straightforward "Yves Saint Laurent," which starred Pierre Niney in the title role.

"Saint Laurent" costume designer Anais Romand won for her dazzling re-creations that included two of Saint Laurent's best-known collections, the film's only Cesar win.

The project began not from Bonello himself, as had his previous films, such as 2011's "House of Pleasures," about a Parisian bordello at the dawn of the 20th century but, rather, when he was approached by producers Eric and Nicolas Altmayer.

As Bonello said in a phone interview from Paris and during a Q&A after a recent screening of the film in Los Angeles, his general dislike of biopics at first made him wary of the project. But then realizing that there was no script or book or treatment on which the project would be based, he saw a lot of freedom to do what he wanted. He had also long been interested in making a film set in the 1970s.

"First, I tried to figure out all the things I did not want," said Bonello, 46, a soft-spoken provocateur who also composed the film's chilly electronic score. "For me the most important thing was not to explain Saint Laurent. I was not interested in discovering the mystery. So my point of view was not how Saint Laurent became Saint Laurent but, rather, what it cost him every day to be Saint Laurent."

As he began his search for his lead role, Bonello heard from numerous people that he should see the actor Gaspard Ulliel, who many felt bore a striking resemblance to the delicately angled features of the designer.

Ulliel, also currently the face for a men's fragrance for Chanel, may be familiar to American audiences for playing the role of Hannibal Lector in the 2007 film "Hannibal Rising." He would ultimately lose nearly 30 pounds to play Saint Laurent but came to discover any physical resemblance was not the most important thing Bonello was looking for.

"I understood this quite quickly," Ulliel said. "He told me very early in the process of preparation, 'I'm choosing you for this part because I'm also interested in filming you, and I want to find some of you in this character.'

"So the idea was to make more of a mix between all I had discovered in my research and in my own feelings, my own emotions, my own memories. And that's when it started to become really interesting as an actor. I think that was the only way to do it. It allowed me to step back from all the research and really invent my own Saint Laurent."

In part because Berge was supporting the other Saint Laurent project, the production was not allowed access to official archival clothes or materials. But the production did gain access to a massive private collection of vintage Saint Laurent clothing owned by designer and stylist Olivier Chatenet. So some of the clothes worn in the film are genuine period Saint Laurent pieces, while those in the fashion shows were re-created by Romand.

Searching far and wide for materials, Romand re-created racks of outfits. For the notorious 1971 "Liberation" collection, Romand dressed about 20 models. She also re-created a handful of looks for a montage sequence that moves through a number of years and collections. She then dressed about 35 models for the film's finale, the 1976 landmark "Russian Ballet" show.

"It was challenging and frightening any way, but it was even more difficult without that access to prepare the film," Romand said. "But then we discovered that I had much more freedom in a way. It would have been easier for me to have access to the original designs and pictures and things. It was an enormous amount of work, but it the end I had absolutely no regrets."

"Of course it was a lot of work. Re-creating two collections of haute couture is really difficult," Bonello said. "But if we had access to the dresses, those dresses now are museum pieces. You have to handle them with gloves, you can't move a lot and I wanted to give a sense of something really contemporary, modern and very living. This was only possible because we made everything we wanted."

For Romand, the process of re-creating some of the designer's best-known clothes yielded unexpected insights. She came to see in Yves Saint Laurent "the search for beauty in every detail. He chose every girl when he was doing the shows and looked at her feet, her hands, her head, her eyebrows, everything, looking for an image in his mind, a feeling. The things he was really looking for was the person, I think, not only the clothes."

mark.olsen@latimes.com

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