"For the film, I was extremely lucky to have access to the Yves Saint Laurent archives, to handle and see and bring out these dresses, some that last came out forty or fifty years ago. The incredible privilege I had was being able to go, 'Nah, not that one. That one’s a bit better but not really. I prefer this one.' I could be that picky and choosy: a fantasy for lots of women! But overall, for me and for Pierre Bergé, it was very important to be absolutely faithful to the original collections.
In terms of my favourite piece from the film, I would say I love all the Russian ballet outfits at the end. It’s just an amazing collection and it comes really close to theatre, or to opera – it was the first time they used music for the catwalk so that it gave a very strong impression. It was while filming that collection that I felt the biggest emotion. I knew that Saint Lauren didn’t like designing wedding dresses so much, but he did like the one from Ballet Russes collection. So for that dress, we tried to find the right model, one who looked a little bit like the model he used to work with a lot – not a beauty in the sense of 'Wow, she is gorgeous', but in that she had quite an unusual face, a Russian face, which is closer to an actress than a model's. And we found this model, and when she came in like that, in the dress with the flowers, and Pierre Niney was playing Saint Laurent so well at this moment, it was such an emotional moment.
"I chose to invite Pierre Bergé on set and he actually started crying"
On that day, I chose to invite Pierre Bergé on set and he actually started crying. And my little daughter, who was two then, was there and she said to him, 'Oh, why do you cry?' and he said, 'He’s stolen my memory.' He was talking about Pierre Niney. 'You are just like a thief,' he told us. And – even though everybody is afraid of Pierre Bergé – my daughter, she saw him crying and she went and sat on his knee, and it was an incredible moment really. Everyone went, 'Aaah.' It’s just human beings, it’s a love story and for everybody it’s the same. So yes, maybe this dress because it’s the perfect mix between my movie, my shooting and all this family that we met: the Yves Saint Laurent family."
For his third feature film, French director-cum-actor Jalil Lespert opted to tell the story of one of fashion's most beloved pioneers, the inimitable Yves Saint Laurent. It must have been a daunting task: not only was he bound to come under intense scrutiny from fashion devotees and Saint Laurent's surviving contemporaries, he also had to prove himself to Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent's long-term partner, who fortunately gave the director his blessing, despite a few initial qualms. "I felt it was the right gesture that I sent him the script before shooting it," Lespert tells us. "And he said ‘Oh, but there’s loads of mistakes and lots of things that aren’t true?’ and I said, ‘Yes, but I need to tell the stories, the story of my film.’ And luckily he understood that really early on – I think he has the greatest of respect for artists and he has shown that all his life."
And Bergé's trust was not misplaced. The film is a visually sumptuous, passion-filled affair that takes the viewer on a heady journey through 1970s Paris (with a few breathtaking Moroccan interludes), following the extreme highs and lows of Saint Laurent's defining years. Rising star Pierre Niney plays the bespectacled prodigy down to a T, balancing shy humility with fiery recklessness, and is supported by an equally well-cast ensemble, including a louche Nikolai Kinski as Karl Lagerfeld, and doe-eyed beauty Charlotte Le Bon as Saint Laurent's muse Victoire Doutreleau.
But some of the film's most notable highlights are the stunning archive pieces, vividly revived under Lespert's direction, which span the iconic Mondrian dresses through the beguiling Ballet Russes collection. Lespert's admiration for Saint Laurent's art is tangible: "I am very touched by his vision; the very modern vision he had of women, of a free woman, while being aware and understanding her femininity and her power of seduction," he tells us. Here the director talks of his delight at perusing the YSL archives and reveals his favourite piece, alongside an exclusive clip from the film.
Yves Saint Laurent is in cinemas nationwide from this Friday, March 21.
Text by Daisy Woodward