The biopic is, in many ways, a tricky proposition, a form where the carefully-researched realism of history and the emotional impact of drama can blend in a uniquely powerful way. The flip side is the difficulty of doing justice to the memory of a man who lived, especially one who is revered throughout the fashion world. “When you’re playing an icon such as Yves Saint Laurent,” says Pierre Niney, the 25-year-old French actor who does just that in the new film Yves Saint Laurent, “people have their own different expectations, so it’s hard to find the right balance. It’s hard to play someone who existed because of those expectations, but at the same time, he existed, so you have the model.”
Despite the weight of Saint Laurent’s legacy, the young Niney does an impressive job, capturing not only the designer’s soft voice and shy shuffle, but his tumultuous inner conflicts as well. One of the most celebrated artists of the last century, Saint Laurent had a famously prodigious start, taking over the house of Christian Dior from the recently-deceased founder at the age of twenty-one. The sumptuous film by Jalil Lespert traces the course of several decades of his career, from the young man scribbling at his childhood desk to the lauded star putting the finishing touches on his celebrated Ballets Russes show in 1976, a collection which marked both an artistic high and a personal low, as Saint Laurent struggled with addiction to drugs and a troubled relationship with his lifelong partner Pierre Bergé.
Niney says he sees he sees the film as part romantic tale and part portrait of the artist as a young man. “When you tell the story, you have to tell the love story,” Niney says. “Everybody who knows the story knows that Pierre Bergé played such a huge part in Yves’ life, so you can’t avoid it. In one scene, Yves says that it’s thanks to Pierre that everything is happening, but Pierre says he would have done something great anyway, because he is a genius. We don’t know what they would have done if they hadn’t met, but we know that together they did so many great things. They built an empire from almost nothing. You can’t avoid the love story, but you can’t avoid that Yves was also an artist alone.”
Bergé, in fact, played a vital role in the creation of Yves Saint Laurent (a distinction that sets the film apart from a competing Saint Laurent biopic that recently premiered at Cannes), opening up the house’s archives to Lespert and the crew, a privilege that allowed Niney to invest himself fully in the role. “When you see the archives, you see much more than that,” he explains. “Being able to talk to all the people who worked for the house, you realize how much of a great adventure it was, but also how much of a family project. One of the seamstresses who worked for Yves Saint Laurent for thirty years had two boys named Pierre and Yves, so you understand the dedication, which was pretty moving and touching. That’s the best preparation you can do, being moved by the subject you’re going to interpret.”
Niney spent five months getting ready to put on Saint Laurent’s iconic glasses, working with a physical trainer, a stylist, and even a drawing teacher for maximum accuracy. “I worked with the stylist a lot to understand how a fashion house runs and all the rules and codes,” he says. “I wanted to know how to recognize materials, how to touch them, how to wrap them around the model. That was a lot of work, but I wanted to feel confident and be able to do improvisations too.”
That extensive effort has paid off, as Niney’s Saint Laurent evolves over the course of the film from timid protégé to hardheaded master, all the while displaying a passion that the actor says was the main similarity he saw between himself and the designer. “I started to act in theater and in movies at the age of fifteen, and I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else,” he says. “Since that time, that has been the only thing I want to do, and I think Saint Laurent was the same way with drawing. He was passionate about that too, though I wouldn’t dare compare myself to Yves Saint Laurent, of course.”
Still, Niney has come a long way in the years since his début, with starring roles in a number of French films and a healthy stage career, including becoming the youngest person to join the ranks of the Comédie-Française, France’s national theater company, also at twenty-one. “I guess I maybe had too much energy when I was little, and the fact that I was putting that into characters made sense,” he laughs. “It had meaning suddenly. It was something that could touch and talk to an audience. When I realized that, I felt like it was almost a superpower. I loved it and it became necessary.”
Even as Niney becomes more comfortable in the film world—he’s currently shooting a thriller in the south of France and has signed on to play the son of legendary diver Jacques Cousteau in another biopic—he remains grateful for his theatrical past and the training it has given him, and recognizes the solid foundation it has established as he prepares to tackle bigger and bigger projects. “I was lucky to start with theater because it teaches you real craftsmanship,” he says. “I have been able to work on really complex characters in the theater, so I knew myself better as an actor thanks to that experience.”
Yves Saint Laurent is out today from the Weinstein Company. Grooming by Anna Bernabe using Jurlique Skin Care.
Jonathan Shia is the editor of The Last Magazine.