In 1998, French documentary filmmaker Olivier Meirou (For Hate) began making a film about the latest collection by designer Yves Saint Laurent. It was clear that a couturier at the threshold of his 60th birthday was unlikely to be able to return to work. In addition, next year a deal was planned for the sale of Gucci fashion house founded by Laurent. It was truly the end of an era.
Filming as a result lasted three years, but the film goes on wide release just now. For many years, the release was hindered by the long-standing partner (in every sense) Laurent Pierre Berger - it is unlikely that the portrait of an already very elderly designer with a cigarette always smoldering in his teeth seemed quite respectful to him. Plus, he insisted that he be given control over the final editing of the picture. Just before his death in 2017, Berger finally watched a film edited by Meir and gave the “Greatest Couturier” (in the original - Celebration) a green light.
“The main difficulty with the release of the film was that we shot the death of the person who was the most traumatic for Pierre,” Olivier Meiro, the director of the film told Alice Taiga, the film’s life reviewer. “I was very worried that the film was not given a go. And now I understand that when everything has settled down, he looks different: a temporary ban only went to his advantage. As they say, a lot is seen from a distance. "
Taiga talked to Meiru about the designer’s last days, the difficulties on the set, the dynamics of the relationship between Laurent and Berger and what the director understood about the documentary for all this time.
- With what expectations did you start filming Yves Saint Laurent? AT that one moment it was clear that your camera captures the story?
- The fact that the latest collection of Yves Saint Laurent is part of the story was obvious. When I crossed the threshold of the Yves Saint Laurent fashion house in 1998, there was a feeling of a frozen 19th century - no hint of a millennium. It was still the world of Coco Chanel and Christian Dior, their pace and author's attitude to work: only these designers were no longer alive, and everything in the YSL house revolved around Saint Laurent - it was indispensable, in the center of the whole system. Everyone understood that with his passing away, the house would also perish. It was as if I were in France in miniature: the creator, billionaire and workers - all under one roof. There were workers at the top, the whole floor below for Yves and Pierre Berger, then the floor for customers, and at the very bottom - all the paperwork.
- You were not an expert in the fashion world when you started shooting. Didn't it scare you?
- Glamor in its current understanding did not interest me at all. Almost immediately, I dropped everything related to stereotypes about high fashion to show that there was a living person behind the industry. I would make such a film about both the writer and the painter - about the struggle to make the ephemeral real, get a structure. And even the disease took the form of art - Yves Saint Laurent knew how. His utopian ideas came to the world. He was looking for light while in the dark. Love staying very closed. Contact, although he was alone all the time.
He really chose to be happy after being depressed for nearly 70 years - and this was visible even to the camera. Eve stopped denying his death and that is why he was looking for meaningful in every little thing of the last days. For the world of haute couture, this is rare - there is so much courage and dignity in such behavior. He did not have time to pretend - he did not pretend. Yves Saint Laurent, being an outstanding person, accepted the cycle of life, as sooner or later each of us should accept - and my film turned out about this.
- Have you watched the Bertrand Bonello biopic about Yves Saint Laurent? And the movie "Phantom Thread"?
- Everyone tells me about The Phantom Thread: I must see, it's Paul Thomas Anderson! Everyone compares how carefully I approached the couturier work process, and they say that the PTA film is an artistic fiction of my own story.
Bonello was inspired by the filming of my film for his biopic. Very successful: he spied passages and found out how the working life of the fashion house looked from the inside.
- What was Saint Laurent in everyday life? Was it scary to deconstruct the legend?
- Yves Saint Laurent - in itself a work of art. I immediately understood why it was worth filming. As my film says, “in order to do elegant things, you need the elegance of the heart” - this is entirely about Saint Laurent. By the start of filming, I knew very little about fashion and the mod itself did not bother me. I wanted to shoot about the community, human structure, hierarchy, the relationship of different people. And Saint-Laurent was an ideal hero for such a plot: he did not change his youth in his desires - he continued to do what he chose a long time ago, but the system grew around him and his ambitions. His path was very clear, he was logical in every action. But he, like every living person, was subject to time: weakened before his eyes, became slower, but wanted his dream to last while he breathes. So I found a real quiet fight against anxiety, exhaustion and fear of death.
- The film has a lot of scenes about how Pierre Berger helps Yves Saint Laurent to hold his face, commands him, continues to build his image to the last.
- Yes, Pierre Berger was, in fact, the director of this film - I realized this at the editing. He created daily scripts, wrote the story around. They were both obsessed with the end of the fashion house and thought about the legacy. This is generally very French - to worry about what remains after you. And this movie is about the profession - because the word "couturier" is erased from the daily language: it refers to a certain era and approach. The film has a funny moment in Pierre Berger's discussion about Ancient Egypt: sometimes it seemed to me that he thinks of a fashion house in the context of the pyramids and measures his life with the grandeur of antiquity.
- What was the relationship between Pierre Berger and Yves Saint Laurent? Once they had love, but then only a common thing remained.
- Yes, their common cause was the main, the center of everything. They looked like a two-headed eagle, two people inside the same body - their fashion house was their child, the main thing for which they existed together.
- Pierre Berger uses a very gentle metaphor in the film: Yves Saint Laurent is a sleepwalker, wandering around the roofs at night, and Berger’s task is to prevent him from falling from a great height and not wake up.
- That's exactly how I felt them during the filming. The presence of Saint Laurent was completely magical, and this magic had to be maintained. He was on his own, did not talk very much, but moved like a wild beast, not a man. We simply could not destabilize this situation, this fragile balance between the couturier and the colossus that worked around him and which Berger launched.
I felt in the wildlife world on the set of a movie about a crouching tiger. In Africa, it is not necessary to look a lion in the eye and call him into contact. Eve and his dog Muzhik were two animals in the frame, in whose life it was impossible to intervene: the best solution was to sit in the corner, turn on the camera and not communicate - in fact, we did not communicate. The only thing you need is a space for observation in order to gain trust: cinema, believe it as it is. For the first three days, Saint Laurent was not at all in the studio, and the movie camera shot idle, and then the dog crept in panting and it became clear that Yves was somewhere nearby. At some point, we became furniture on the set, something no more important than a chair in the corner.
- For me and, I think, for many, “The Greatest Couturier” is a film about how a creative person, or a genius in the case of Saint Laurent, cannot work without a producer who insures him at every turn.
- Yes, this is the story of the relationship between the creator and those who support him. In front of me was an old man working at the table most of the time and already become history, having a sacred status. He was in the past, in the archive. What do you do when you're already a myth? What else do you have to do in this world? After all, you will never be as good as in your golden days.
Everything around Yves was built on the enthusiasm and anger of Pierre Berger - without his order we would never have got into the studio, would not have access. He was so brave and self-confident. At an exhibition in Pompidou, he came up to me, patted my cheek and invited me to make a film - it was impossible to refuse him when he wanted something - a real Napoleon. A mixture of Napoleon and Louis de Funes, the quintessence of an active Frenchman.
- When shooting Yves Saint Laurent, did you understand the nature of inspiration?
- No, it slipped away. But I saw what price the artist pays for inspiration at the end of his life. The price is incredibly high, almost unbearable. The magic was that the anxious and tired man spends all the time in the drawings, and the world that he built supports him and does not allow him to drown. Many people who worked in the fashion house were there from the very beginning - it's a whole life lived together. And there would be no individual work without this collective, everyone worked according to one method. Pierre Berger wanted to create a film for the beloved man, the main thing in his life, not just that glamorous hero who was painted by Warhol and who posed for spirits, but this deep man on the eve of the end. Saint Laurent knew that he would die soon - and accepted it with pacification. But Berger knew that no one in history would go this far anymore, he was nervous and prepared with anger for his departure.
- Why then Pierre Berger prevented the release of the film?
- All three years of filming gave me complete freedom, ten hours a day - we did not have forbidden topics and closed rooms. When we made the movie, it became clear that Berger and I had fundamentally different views on what a film is. I shot for myself and planned the final installation. Berger considered himself a customer, was going to edit the film with me and put his name in the credits: according to him, this is his life too and he has the right. And then the problems began.
Only very recently, shortly before his death, Berger asked me to watch a film in my montage. We shot a separate cinema for him - and he liked the film from beginning to end. It seems to me that the main difficulty with the release of the film was that we shot the death of a man who was the most traumatic for Pierre. And he simply didn’t have the distance to take a movie many years ago: then he would have to comment on the film, constantly turn to him, accompany his public history, and therefore fall into the same grief again. I was very worried that the film was not given a go, and now I understand that when everything has settled down, it looks different: a temporary ban only benefited him. As they say, a lot is seen in the distance.
- What did you understand about documentary films and about yourself while you worked on one topic for so long?
“The documentary is like a bottle thrown into the sea.” You are sitting on a desert island, throwing your message at it, watching how it is drowning, and hoping that someone will find this bottle and read the message on time and understand what it is about. My movie turned out that some things have not changed since the Renaissance, where there was a master, philanthropist, students, artisans and the whole universe in which talent flourishes.
It was obvious that all the people who worked with Saint-Laurent carefully escorted the story - how the servants in the house of the sick master were waiting for his death and trying to alleviate his last days. They were in the moment and at the same time they were already behaving as in retrospect - a strange, borderline, twofold feeling.
Once again I became convinced that Agnes Varda, our great contemporary, was right: cinema is not a story, but a way to look at a person with his real life. And by the way, in the case of Agnes Varda, everything worked around her, as well as with Yves Saint Laurent: her family supported her, they helped her keep her creative core and not be exchanged for compromises with producers, finding money and other material things. It is very important to be able to rely on other people, to trust them - this is how talent expands and conquers the world.