We spoke with the film’s star, French actor Pierre Niney, about Saint Laurent's overnight catapult into fame at age 21, his intense will, immense talent, and Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent's lifelong love that both shielded him from, and brought him to, the world.
Yves Saint Laurent is in theaters now.
I hear you underwent very intense preparation to play this role.
"Five months of it! I spent five months watching Yves, listening to his voice at least three hours every day. There is a certain idea of perfection in his work and his look — the silhouette, the glasses — so, I needed the five months of preparation to get to know him, understand his world, and absorb his character so that I could be free on the set."
There’s such a sense of realness in the scenes where you sketch, or drape fabric on a model in the showroom.
"I also worked with three different coaches: one for the drawing part, because they wanted me to draw for real in the movie. I worked with a woman who worked for Mr. Saint Laurent for fifteen years — worked with him and drew sketches with him — so she knew him and his style really well. And, I worked with a personal trainer to make a proper evolution of my body as the character ages. And finally, I worked with a stylist, to really understand the fashion, the clothes, the vocabulary, how to touch materials, how to move it around the model."
What do you think made Saint Laurent such a singular talent?
"I think his collections are an unbelievable mix between simplicity and classic elegance, and at the same time modernity and even provocation. He was a real visionary. It was always a mix of those things with a kind of magical balance. You don’t know how you can do that again. And, I think people really responded to that."
Do you think he had a special understanding of women?
"I think he was deeply in love with women and with his models. His inspiration really came from his muses, Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise, all the models. When you see the documentary [2010's L'Amour Fou], at the end of his life, he’s really tired and broken. You have a beautiful image of him at his desk and he’s almost asleep…and then a model comes in the room…"
…And he lights up.
"Yes! You can see in his eyes that he’s waking up again, it revives him. It’s a really beautiful image, and you understand he was kept alive by the love of women, by the love of his models."
The film explores the idea that genius is closely linked with neuroses.
"Yeah, I think that’s what’s so fascinating about him, and why it was really challenging to play him, to make you believe that those two things intertwine in the character. When I saw the first interview [after Saint Laurent became Christian Dior's successor] — you really only get that when you watch it twice: The first time, you think, Oh this is a really shy man, very fragile, and he suffered, but when you watch it again, you can see that he’s really picking special words. It’s almost like poetry sometimes."
Even in his quietness, he had a way of commanding the room, too.
"Definitely. Even though he’s really young and inexperienced, he’s always going to the end of his ideas, he’s not letting himself be interrupted or caught by the journalists. And, he’s bringing really strong ideas. In every interview, you can feel that strength behind the shyness."
Is there a scene that, for you, encapsulates that hidden strength?
"Unfortunately it didn’t make it in the movie, but there was a sentence in the script I loved. It was during the first meeting between Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent, and Pierre says to Yves, 'You speak really low.' And Yves answers, 'Yes — it’s to force the other person to listen to me.' It says a lot about how he used that shyness."
The other great story of the film is the love story between Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. What do you think those two gave each other?
"I think Pierre Bergé is a really smart man. He’s fascinated by artists, most of all by Yves Saint Laurent. His life was really tough, because he probably made many sacrifices by living with a genius. That’s what the movie is explaining, that, as difficult as it is to be a genius like Yves Saint Laurent, it’s maybe even harder to live with that genius, and support him."
Of course, Bergé also gets the glory of being patron and protector of one of the world’s great geniuses.
"Definitely. I think Pierre is the kind of man who needed to be needed. That relationship is rewarding for him, feeling like he’s doing something great and huge with Yves Saint Laurent."
There’s an amazing scene in the film where Yves is telling Pierre that he’d be nothing without him, and Pierre says, "You’re a genius. You would have been successful either way." Do you think that’s true?
"That’s a really interesting question — what would Yves have done if they didn’t meet? We know that together they managed to create an empire from almost nothing, which is, of course, beautiful. I think that’s true: Yves was a genius, and he would’ve done something — I believe we would still know him today, but maybe not as the total legend he is. Because Pierre Bergé is a really strategic and smart man, an unbelievable businessman. He did a great job protecting Yves from the real world so that he could create. Sometimes, maybe, he protected him too much."
"It wasn't easy to film, but we thought it was right not to hide those darker moments, because those are his faults and his vices, and they’re a part of him. It’s like Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse… Those people are legends because they had those darker sides. So, we had to tell that part of the story, too. It says a lot about this character that is sick and trying to escape from depression and from the bottom, just to feel alive. That’s what he’s saying in the movie, that when he’s in danger is when he feels alive. That’s what Yves is always running after."
There was another amazing line in the film, said about Yves: “Beware of shy people — they rule the world.”
"Yeah, I love this sentence, too. It comes back to what I was saying earlier. Shyness, when you have the charm and the charisma, can be used as a weapon. And, I think that’s exactly what Yves Saint Laurent did."