Yves of (Self) Destruction — and Genius

Pierre Niney and Charlotte Le Bon in Jalil Lespert’s “Yves Saint Laurent.” | THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY

Pierre Niney and Charlotte Le Bon in Jalil Lespert’s “Yves Saint Laurent.” | THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY

BY DAVID NOH | Six years after his death, fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent continues to be a name to be reckoned with, via his still extant, blazingly successful company as well as the countless designers and collections that have been inspired by his pioneering work.

With his style innovations like the 1960s Mondrian dress, safari jackets, “le smoking” tuxedos for women, his Russian peasant look, and his Chinoiserie, the man simply dominated the second half of the last century. Now director Jalil Lespert has made a breathtakingly elegant and touching film about him, titled simply “Yves Saint Laurent.”

The focus is not just on Saint Laurent, but also his lifetime lover and business partner, Pierre Bergé, who met the shy young prodigy in 1958 and helped him plot his fashion takeover of the world, even while dealing with the designer’s neurotic, too-sensitive-to-live genius that was beset by self-destructive addictions to sex, drugs, and alcohol.

Jalil Lespert’s biopic brings a fashion king to life, and ironically says goodbye

Fashion, though a visual art, has traditionally been difficult to accurately capture on film. For every dazzling “Funny Face” or informative “Unzipped,” there’s something like Robert Altman’s abysmal “Prêt-à-Porter.”

“I had this desire to tell not only a great story, but a very big French story with a lot of breadth,” Lespert told me. “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.

“I love Robert Altman and I did not see ‘Pret-a-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 Bergé 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 through 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.”

The actor in question is Pierre Niney, who is not only the perfect etiolated, equine physical match-up to the real Saint Laurent but, I dare say, a spiritual match, as well.

“I know so many actors but don’t like to have auditions,” Lespert said. “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 the 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.

“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.”

Almost as famous as Saint Laurent in his glittering heyday was his entourage, which consisted of Catroux, his muse, as well as his design collaborator, the late Loulou de la Falaise. The chicest woman who ever existed, I met de la Falaise one special night at the Studio 54 after-party for the launch of the perfume Opium. I was wearing a Castelbajac jumpsuit and a head rag and I guess my style attracted her, because in the balcony of the club she came over to me and, having escaped Yves and company, who were downstairs whooping it up with Halston and his entourage, we hung out for a few enchanted hours. She described their design process, which was fairly simple (“Every season, Yves and I have to come up with a new blouse and skirt combination”), as well as her remarkable lineage, as the niece of the Marquis Henri de la Falaise, who had married stylish movie stars Gloria Swanson and Constance Bennett (“zat bitch”).

Director Jalil Lespert on the set of “Yves Saint Laurent.” | THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY

Director Jalil Lespert on the set of “Yves Saint Laurent.” | THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY

I told Lespert how happy I was he included de la Falaise in his film.

“I have a friend who’s a very close friend of Bergé and when he saw that actress, and even the actor who played her husband, Thadee Klossowski, he was very moved by them and said, ‘Ohmigod, they are so close, it’s incredible!,’ and we were quite happy it went so well,” Lespert recalled. “Unfortunately, I never met her or Yves, but I have met Betty Catroux. Today, she’s really free in her mind and she’s kind of a rebel. It’s funny because she and Bergé 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.

“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.”

That other fashion king Karl Lagerfeld also appears in the film. He and Saint Laurent were friends in their youth and lifelong rival designers and, even after Yves’ death, Lagerfeld and Bergé maintain a touchy relationship, which I personally witnessed one night in Paris. I was sitting in the popular bistro, Café de Flore, when I saw Bergé walk in. Later, I heard that Lagerfeld was outside, waiting in his car for Bergé to leave before he would set foot in the restaurant, and sure enough, when he left, Karl made his entrance. It was like witnessing the procession of two kings. In the movie, Nikolai Kinski plays Lagerfeld as a surprisingly sexy young satyr, who came up in the style ranks with Saint Laurent but was also tougher and more commercially minded, a true survivor.

“Yes, he was exactly the opposite,” Lespert agreed. “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 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.’”

In the film it’s suggested that, in their youth, Saint Laurent and Lagerfeld shared a bed, and, far more explicitly, a man, the devastating party boy/ homme fatale Jacques de Bascher, who became the great love of Lagerfeld’s life and died of AIDS. “Yeah, I found out everything about him,” Lespert said. “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 theater.”

With a subtle, piercingly beautiful music score by Ibrahim Maalouf and restrained cinematography by Thomas Hardmeier, Lespert managed to capture the outrageous opulence of Saint Laurent’s world with a budget he claims was only “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, Hardmeier 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.

“We were 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.”

I wanted to know what Lespert’s takeaway feeling about Saint Laurent was.

“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 said. “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 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, MiloÅ¡ Forman’s ‘Amadeus’ helped me very much because he talked about Mozart through Salieri, which was very smart. In my movie, Bergé is like Salieri, so you can identify with him. I’m not a genius like Saint Laurent but I could identify myself with Bergé. 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.”

YVES SAINT LAURENT | Direct by Jalil Lespert| The Weinstein Company | Opens Jun. 25 | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. | filmforum.org