Becoming Saint Laurent: Director Jalil Lespert and Actor Pierre Niney on the YSL biopic

Pierre Niney as Yves Saint Laurent
Pierre Niney as Yves Saint Laurent

French actor Pierre Niney, 25, whose resemblance to legendary designer Yves Saint Laurent is as stunning as his performance in the same role in the new Jalil Lespert-directed biopic Yves Saint Laurent, had only been told that he looked like the designer he portrays once prior to getting the role.

“One night at a party, a really drunk guy came up to me and said, ‘Whoa you look like Yves Saint Laurent’ because I was wearing a turtleneck,” says Niney with a warm laugh, “I’d love to track that guy down and tell him that he gave pretty good casting advice.”

The film portrays the sometimes tumultuous yet utterly devoted love and business relationship between Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé, portrayed in the film by Guillaume Gallienne. Tracking Saint Laurent’s life from 21-year old fashion prodigy and creative director of the House of Dior, his placement in a mental institution after being deemed unfit for battle by his native Algeria when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, to the couple’s meeting and their establishing of the fashion house of Yves Saint Laurent and Saint Laurent’s skyrocketing fame, substance abuse, and eventual collapse of his health. The movie moves swiftly from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, detailing the ups and downs of the two men’s relationship, the only consistency in the plot being Saint Laurent’s and Bergé’s unbreakable connection to one another.

In a scene in which Bergé confronts Saint Laurent about a new lover he’s taken on, St. Laurent responds, “I’m in love with him, but you are the love of my life.”

Guillaume Gallienne and Pierre Niney

It was exactly that multi-faceted love that moved director Lespert and convinced him to take on the project. At a round table interview at the Trump Hotel SoHo with his lead actor, the lightly-bearded and affable French director sits cheerfully puffing on an electronic cigarette explaining his primary motivation for making the film.

“When I saw the documentary (L’amour fou) I was just very moved by how much these guys loved each other,” he says, “I wanted to make a really great romance movie.”

When Niney, who’s thin face, narrow features, and extremely thick mop of hair do in fact eerily resemble that of the character he portrays, did not consider the world of fashion to be a traditional art form when he first signed on to play the coveted role, but he quickly became amazed by the care, work ethic, and skill that designers like Saint Laurent and others employ.

“When I first got the role I was thinking, ‘It’s just a fucking dress,'” he says laughing, “After months of preparation working with a stylist who explained to me how a fashion house runs and the process of making a dress. I developed a respect for the patience and skill it takes to design these dresses.”

Niney is a revelation in the film, and typecasting aside, it could be a huge crossover performance for him. He draws on all the dichotomies within Saint Laurent’s character. The genius and the spite, the sweetness and the malice, and the early sobriety followed up by his hard-partying and hard-drugging later days. You see him treat his early muse Victoire Douteleau, played by Charlotte le Bon, with sweetness and respect one scene and vitriol and venom the next.

“That is why the role was so interesting and fascinating for an actor, finding all these contradictions in the character,” says Niney. “It was a real challenge during filming as we weren’t shooting chronologically. The real through line for this character as in the beginning he is this real young, shy, sweet guy. At the end of the movie he’s an alcoholic. But what we really focused on was that he was manic depressant.”

Pierre Niney as Yves Saint Laurent and Charlotte le Bon as Victoire
Pierre Niney as Yves Saint Laurent and Charlotte le Bon as Victoire

The drug and debauchery-fueled scenes are where the film runs into trouble. It is not a perfect film and finding the balance between telling the story of a romance while also bringing in Scorsese-lite fast-paced sequences of Saint Laurent’s plunge into drug abuse that feel frantic and almost a bit rushed. Like many biopics it has to cramp a lot of material into a two-hour or less film. Lespert admits that it was hard at times to not tell the story as almost a sort of Scarface-like gangster film.

“It was very important to talk about the dark aspects of Yves’s personality but it would also have been clichéd to only talk about that,” says Lespert, “When I started writing the script, I was like, ‘Yeah I want more drugs, more backroom!’ (Laughs) Of course I had to talk about that but I wanted to talk more about creation, about fashion, and about the artist behind it.”

Lespert, an actor himself, noticed that people in fashion often have theatric flair to their characters and as such employed a cast more known for stage work than cinema, and the cast works well together portraying a tight-knit and wild group of people, “I needed theatre actors because usually they are technically better. They can play a lot of emotions and play off each other well. You don’t get that with a lot of actors,” he says.

Though the filmmakers want to make clear they made the film independent of the renamed Saint Laurent Paris’s influence, they also got to experience the backroom of a Saint Laurent Paris show when current Saint Laurent Paris creative director Hedi Slimane invited them backstage to a show

Slimane can’t escape comparisons to Saint Laurent, as he like also jumped from creative director of Dior to Saint Laurent, and like Saint Laurent has a visionary approach to fashion employing influences from art, rock and roll, and bohemia. Niney couldn’t help but take influence from the magnetic Silmane, “Heidi’s an interesting guy in many ways and he has many similarities with Yves Saint Laurent.,” says Niney, “He’s really shy, but you can see in his eyes and he’s really passionate and alive. As soon as he gets in the room it just lights up. Yves also was really shy, but he had the aura of a really strong person.”

Guillaume Gallienne and Pierre Niney
Guillaume Gallienne and Pierre Niney

Lespert is an earnest-seeming guy, and he clearly set out to make this film with the best of intentions. But that hasn’t stopped a few critics from making the same sort of mean-spirited observations that any biopic gets. A Johnny Cash film will obviously partly promote the music of Johnny Cash, just as a film about Yves Saint Laurent could arguably do the same for the brand. In a particularly harsh review, the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called the film, “Pure corporate self endorsement.“

This is of course a little unfair, as a movie about a fashion designer can’t really help but make a deal out of the brand that the designer started, “What is the response to that?” quips Niney, “To not make the film? It’s not like Saint Laurent Paris even needs help selling their clothes.”

Lespert says he doesn’t read reviews, but he does seem to be a bit tired of these types of questions, “I knew when making this there’d be fashion people saying,’There’s not enough fashion’ and cinephiles saying, ‘too much fashion not cinematic enough.’ You can’t please everyone.”

In the end, Lespert doesn’t care about the reviews. The film served as something of a passion project for him. The final scene of the film, Saint Laurent’s last cat walk, proves a fitting end to a film that has third act problems, depicting Saint Laurent giving his final bow before his health deteriorated. Important to know is that even though there is another St. Laurent biopic on the way, entitled St. Laurent, this is the one Bergé has sanctioned. Bergé was actually on set that day, and it was an emotional experience for him, Lespert, and even the many extras chosen to be in the crowd.

“I was full of emotion, all these beautiful girls walking around. And suddenly Pierre Niney appears as Yves and does his bow and Pierre Bergé was so moved,” he says, “It was that moment that I realized why we did this movie.”

Though the film has its problems, it properly portrays Saint Laurent as the rare artist whose work touched people well outside the norm of creative circles, and gave tribute to a man’s life that had profound effect on popular culture.

Marie de Villepin as Betty Catroux, Pierre Niney as Yves Saint Laurent, and Nikolai Kinski as Karl Lagerfield
Marie de Villepin as Betty Catroux, Pierre Niney as Yves Saint Laurent, and Nikolai Kinski as Karl Lagerfeld

“We were all moved and touched by Yves Saint Laurent,” says Lespert, “He was a real genius and we all felt very close to him. That’s the thing with real genius, you feel very close to him even if you don’t know exactly why.”

Yves Saint Laurent hits US theaters June 25, for more on the film and Pierre Bergé read this piece we did on Bergé last month and his reaction to the film