Before preparing to play late designer Yves Saint Laurent, French model-actor Gaspard Ulliel knew surprisingly little about his character.
“I just knew about the female tuxedo and his most iconic pieces,” the 30-year-old actor admits. “But I really discovered a lot about his career and life as I started preparing for this role.”
Audiences will learn as much in Bertrand Bonello's stylish, French-language biopic “Saint Laurent,” which opens today. The two-and-a-half hour film follows Saint Laurent from 1967 to 1976, a particularly prolific period for the designer, known today for Mondrian and Le Smoking collections, safari jackets, Russian peasant wear and the ready-to-wear line YSL.
“Yves was at the peak of his career when mores were changing, and it helped him inject such a strong take on this in his women's fashion,” says Ulliel. “I think he actually changed the woman's silhouette forever.”
But creating also cost Saint Laurent a lot. As the pressures mounted, the designer turned more and more to alcohol and drugs.
In addition to his illustrious career, “Saint Laurent” focuses on the skeletons in the designer's closet, including mental breakdowns, excessive drinking and cocaine use, and promiscuous public sex. In one particularly troubling scene, the designer wakes from a drug binge to find his cherished dog overdosing on narcotics that had spilled onto the floor.
“We wanted to do a film that was not about how Yves became YSL, but what it cost Yves to be YSL,” Ulliel says. “So we couldn't talk about him without exploring his dark side, because it's so inextricably linked to his creation. We're talking about someone who was born depressed and consistently going up and down. As an actor, one of the most important things is to never judge your character and to actually accompany him in celebrating his weaknesses, insecurities and delusions.”
Perfectly-fitted period Yves Saint Laurent clothing loaned by a French collector helped the actor get into character. But he didn’t become the designer until he took off a suit for a flirty scene with partner Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Renier) or when shooting a kissing scene with lover Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel).
“The scenes are about humanizing Saint Laurent,” he says. “As an actor, you have to think of your body as a tool. It's a very different experience, because you're in your character's body and mind. I didn't even feel like it was me. But that's what made him moving in the end.”
IF YOU GO
Starring: Gaspard Ulliel, Jeremie Renier, Lea Seydoux
Written by: Bertand Bonello, Thomas Bidegain
Directed by: Bertand Bonello
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes