Last week, the new film, Saint Laurent, debuted at the SF International Film Festival, and, on May 13, a special screening at the Metreon will benefit DIFFA before the movie opens in theaters nationwide.
The French fashion house itself, though, is having a California moment. Shortly after heralded designer Hedi Slimane took the helm as creative director, headquarters were moved to L.A., a men's boutique popped up in San Francisco, and a women's store here is on the way. We caught up with the film's star, Gaspard Ulliel, while he was in town to talk about everything from his gig at Chanel, to shooting the nude scenes, to Yves Saint Laurent himself.
Michaela d'Artois: What was the process for you to become the character of Yves Saint Laurent, who had such a deep personal story?
Gaspard Ulliel: "Very intimidating—it was a real challenge. It was the first time I got offered such a complex and deep character. Portraying the man over more than a decade was a tricky thing. I didn't know much about Saint Laurent when we started shooting, so I [took] the opportunity to go through all those documents, biographies, books on him. It was something very special, even weird, to incarnate a man who represents so much for so many people, because obviously there will be a lot of expectations. I had to clear some space to actually reinvent, re-fantasize, recreate my own version of Saint Laurent, and to feel free to imagine stuff and just use my own emotions, my own memories, my own life to then make it more real."
MdA: Did you find similarities between the two of you?
GU: "You know, as an actor, when you open a script for the first time, there are those parts where a relationship builds straight away, where you actually find similarities or you can understand the complexity of such a character. In this peculiar man—well, the character, the way it was written—I could identify myself many times during the first reading of the script, so I was lucky. He started working really young in a big industry; he had this relationship to press and the public world that he had to deal with, and some of this obviously talks to me because I started working quite young as an actor, when I was 12 years old, and so very early I had to face the same things.
MdA: How did you go about taking on Yves Saint Laurent's sexuality, and preparing for those nude scenes?
GU: "I think it's just any other scene. But when it's not your own sexuality, you have, at some point, to think what it meant at that time for this man, what it represented to be gay. So I had some research to do on the specific theme, but in the end, it's just a kiss scene. About being modest or reserved about those nude scenes, it can be frightening, anticipating them prior to the shoot. But on the day, it's easy surprisingly, because it's just totally backed by the character and the scene."
MdA: There was so much contrast to YSL in the film's portrayal. How did you play into these parts?
GU: "All those night scenes that can first appear as dark scenes full of excess and reckless abandon, were for me, actually the scenes where the character would find light, and grace, and life. It's all about experiencing life fully, and that's maybe what helped him to keep going and keep creating all those collections year after year. Because in the end, this film is about the dialect between light and darkness, between imprisonment and liberty."
MdA: We see that in all of his collections too, he designs for a woman who has two sides to her personality. What did you find most intriguing about his work?
GU: "It's true that there's a real personality that comes out of his clothes. It's not only about good-looking dresses, it's about the whole way of picturing women. What's interesting in this film is the decade that was chosen [for focus]: It's this precise moment in his career, the peak, when he actually created the most important pieces of his entire work. And its this specific moment, when the world is changing and the mentality is changing, daily life is changing. I think his real genius was to be able to seize the essence of that era, and to respond to it in his fashion."
MdA: What are some elements of your own personal style?
GU: "I think you have to find a style that also matches your lifestyle, you know? I say this because, in Paris, I mostly drive a motorbike, so obviously it affects the way I dress. I have a lot of leather boots and leather jackets. I don't feel very comfortable wearing clothes that would strike out too much. So always dark colors, and quite classic."
MdA: Speaking of classic, you are the face of Bleu De Chanel cologne. Do you enjoy playing a part in the fashion world?
GU: "I like the idea of being the face of a perfume, because it remains very abstract. IIt's not like if I'm giving my face for a bag—it's something more open and poetic."
MdA: American classics have often had a large impact on French film, especially during French New Wave, but it seems that now they are finding a strong identity. Do you feel this shift in your industry?
GU: "It's funny because we have our own identity but, at the same time, it's as if we were fighting against it. And that could also be true about the entire country. We're actually fighting against our heritage, because we've reached that point where it seems like France just remains paralyzed in this heritage and it's difficult to move on. It feels like everything is a bit old. But I think we've reached a point where there's a new generation coming up that is very talented. I can already see that there are a lot of things changing in the movie industry in France, and it's very exciting."
Saint Laurent opens at the Landmark Embarcadero and the Sundance Kabuki theaters on May 15. Watch the trailer: