Starting with his 1998 debut Something Organic, Bertrand Bonello’s films have added a touch of baroque excess to French cinema. While this wasn’t initially apparent from his first major film, 2001’s The Pornographer, it’s quite clear from his two films distributed in the US, House of Pleasures and Saint Laurent. The former is a compassionate examination of life in a 19th-century brothel, the latter follows a hedonistic decade in the life of famed fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. It dodges the usual pitfalls of the biopic by concentrating on such a short period; indeed, its ending seems like a piss-take on that genre’s clichés. One of two films on Saint Laurent made simultaneously, it’s far superior to Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent. Its release follows a Film Society of Lincoln Center retrospective of Bonello’s work, which is useful since little of his oeuvre has been released stateside. The film opens tomorrow in NYC; we spoke to Bonello last month.
When did you get the idea to make a film about Yves Saint Laurent?
It’s not my idea. It began with a French producer who wanted for many years to do a film about him. When he saw my previous film, House of Pleasure, he called me and asked if the subject was interesting to me. I very quickly saw an opportunity of cinema. The subject brought something visually. The character was like someone from a novel. I also wanted to make a film about that period, the late 60s and early 70s. So that was my interest.
Have you always been interested in fashion?
Not that much. I had nothing against fashion, but I was not a specialist. A few times I went to fashion shows. I really got interested in fashion when I started working on this film.
Did you do a lot of research?
I read about 35 books. Not only about Yves, but about the period, the houses he had, the paintings he owned. I always do a lot of research on my films, even the contemporary ones.
The Pornographer is about a man haunted by May ‘68. Saint Laurent isn’t overtly political, but it runs newsreel footage from the late 60s and early 70s on one side of the screen. Do you see it too as a film about a man haunted by the 60s?
Yes. He’s a great icon from this period . He’s a star who represented something. He decided how part of the population would dress during this period. It’s not nothing. But he’s haunted also by the 19th century and the 1940s. He’s an icon, even though he’s got nothing political. The reason I did this split screen with newsreels on one side and his dresses on the other was a way of saying “The world is changing, many things are happening, but Yves is just making dresses.”
Saint Laurent is very open about male nudity and shows penises. This is rather rare in American or British cinema. Do you think there’s something typically French about your openness to sexuality?
I don’t know. I didn’t ask myself this question. I just do things in the most normal way, but I think we’re maybe a little more open to this in our cinema. The question is, “Are these scenes gratuitous or not?” That’s the only question I asked myself.
What gave you the idea to use the split screens? In some scenes, there are five or six frames within the frame.
We talked about the first split screen. The second is for a fashion show. I was trying to find a way to show a fashion show as cinema. I didn’t want to repeat what we see on TV all the time. There is, of course, a relationship between Yves and Mondrian, as Mondrian inspired his first famous dress. I wanted his show to look like a painting, with color and movement. Mondrian is perfect for the cinema, because it brings you quickly to the split screen.
It made me think of early Brian De Palma.
He’s one of the directors who used a lot of split screen. But you have also The Thomas Crown Affair or The Boston Strangler, which make beautiful use of split screen.
Is the correspondence between Andy Warhol and Yves real?
I invented the letters. I wrote them myself. But it’s true that they were very close. The portrait of Yves by Warhol is true. Even the portrait of Yves’s dog is true.
Were you nervous about succumbing to the clichés of the biopic and “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” excess? The ending seems to be a reaction against the way biopics turn their subjects’ lives into a series of obvious points which could be read off in an obituary. There are a lot of biopics which don’t go any further than that. Something like The Imitation Game just goes for the most obvious take on its subject’s life.
The first work I did with my co-writer was asking what traps did we want to avoid. Quickly, we said, “We’re not doing a biopic, we’re doing a film.” If we invented something, would we do it? These questions were asked every day in the writing. Maybe that’s why we take a different path.
At what point in the writing did you come up with the ending, which is quite unusual for a biopic?
Quite quickly, because it allowed me to avoid saying things and leave them for the end. Usually, in a biopic, someone says, “Yves has transformed women,” which sounds very fake. So a journalist can say that, not a character. Also, when a journalist writes an obituary of someone who’s just died, he has two or three hours to sum up their life. Doing a biopic, you’re in exactly the same situation. I liked the analogy.
House of Pleasures is a period piece, but it ends in the present day. Do you find it hard to make period films and still connect them to the present?
I don’t know if I find it hard, but everyday I ask myself this question. Does it have a kind of resonance? Otherwise, it’s just good for museums. It has to speak to us today and be alive. It’s a constant questioning.
I recently saw the Japanese documentary I, Kamikaze, which you have some level of involvement in. I think you even appear on-screen.
In fact, I shot the film, but I did not edit it.
How did you become involved in it?
A long time ago, a Japanese producer called me and said “Well, I’d like to do a film about kamikaze pilots.” I said “I’m not Japanese and I don’t know that much about them.” He said “I want a non-Japanese filmmaker and someone young, who wasn’t born during the war.” He had the address and phone number of a few surviving kamikazes. We went there and did the interviews. I shot and directed the interviews. I tried writing a script but we couldn’t finance the film. Six years later, the producer called me back and asked if he could have the images back. He edited them. It’s an interesting film, a portrait of a man.
If you get the right person, there’s something really fascinating about that kind of stark imagery of someone just speaking.
It can be fascinating because you get really close to a person. There’s no artifice.
You also acted in the film Portrait of the Artist. Was that your first acting role?
A main role, yes, although I’ve done many little bits here and there.
Do you feel that you learned something from starring in a film?
Yeah, you learn about being in front of the camera and later, when you direct again, you understand and feel a bit more.
How do you feel about being the subject of a retrospective at this point in your career?
It’s a little scary. Is this the end? I can retire! No, it’s a huge homage. First of all, I’m really happy because a lot of my films haven’t been released in the States so it’s an opportunity to bring them here. If you stop for a while and think about what you’ve done, you can look at your obsessions and try to build something else.