Photo by Carole Bétuel © Mandarin/Europacorp.
Saint Laurent chronicles 10 years in the life of designer Yves Saint Laurent, beginning at age 30. It sheds light on his genius, as well as on his darker side. Co-produced by EuropaCorp and Mandarin Cinéma, the film reunites cinematographer Josée Deshaies and writer-director Bertrand Bonello.
Deshaies, a native of Montreal, Canada, got her first job as a director of photography with Bonello, a French director, on Qui je suis in 1996. This led to collaborations between the two that would span more than 18 years and five critically acclaimed feature films including Something Organic, The Pornographer, On War, Tiresia, and House of Tolerance.
Following are highlights of an interview with Deshaies talking about the making of Saint Laurent and her successful partnership with Bonello:
What were some of the challenges you faced in telling this rich story of the life of Yves Saint Laurent without falling into illustration?
I don’t like to reference paintings and I hate reproductions. By refusing to use illustration, you’re forced to make strong lighting choices. I can’t deny my cultural influences and they reside in texture, color, volume and depth. That is why I like to work with film rather than video, and I’ll fight as long as I can to shoot on film.
For Saint Laurent, one of my first challenges was to accurately portray a man whose personal eccentricities were not entirely compatible with filmmaking. For example, he was famous for the oversized glasses he always wore, which meant we had to constantly manage their reflection. Nearly every day we had to find new things to reflect in his glasses that could pass as an element of the set and in his world.
And if that wasn’t enough, Saint Laurent was notorious for his love of mirrors and walls that were painted with high gloss lacquer. He always surrounded himself with mirrors, from table tops, to walls and even bathroom ceilings. It was a nightmare to hide the lights and boom. A few times we drilled holes through mirrors and shot through them. Other times, we hid behind mirrors that reflected different parts of the set. Let’s just say every day presented a new challenge!
What was the overall look you wanted to create for the film?
This film is set in the fashion world, but it tells the story of a man, not the fashion industry. The more we move forward with the story, the darker it becomes. At the beginning, we are mainly in daylight scenes in his work environment. Saint Laurent produces clothes that are mostly monochromatic black and white. The workshops are white, so are the overalls. As we enter the second act in the 1970s, Saint Laurent’s world is one of exuberant color, dramatic imagery, and strong contrasts of light and shadow — a world that’s unapologetically baroque. And finally, at the end of his life, when Saint Laurent was isolated and struggling with alcohol and drug abuse, I let the film become very dark — perhaps too dark.
Why was celluloid the right choice for this story?
Film provides a far better depiction of faces and especially skin tones, which digital cannot reproduce. I’m talking about a blue vein on the temple of an actor or that very specific pink of a cheek. Digital tries to reproduce an image which is not its own — I mean, we’re trying to get digital cameras to ‘match’ a silver halide look! Why try to match? Why not just use the real thing? I noticed while at a photo exhibit that I spent more time looking at the silver halide photos than the digital ones. It is not random, and it answers to no intellectual reasoning. It is just a matter of preference and sensation that it inherently conveys.
What stocks did you use?
I chose the [KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film] 5213 for exteriors and some daylight interiors too, and the [KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film] 5219 for the rest of the movie. I used a lot of filters on this movie. I don’t think I’ve ever used so many filters, knowing that I could ‘catch up’ in digital post if it went slightly gray. The reason I switched between the 5213 and the 5219 for daylight interiors was depth of field.
Can you tell us about y our relationship with Bonello, and why it’s been so gratifying?
Working with the same cinematographer on many different films can allow for a kind of shorthand that enables a director to go deeper, faster and further into their work. With Bertrand, I am with a project from the start, from the very first draft of the screenplay. Not to help him write the story, of course, but to help him envision a cinematic feel from the inception of each scene, and to help him inject imagery at the earliest stages of creation. We always ask ourselves the same question: How can we best translate these words to images and generate emotion from the text?
For me a screenplay is ultimately a roadmap for the film that changes as production moves forward, and elements are added and removed. Even the act of casting a role changes that part. My ability to contribute at such an early stage with Bertrand has allowed for a rare collaboration in which my visual narrative sensibilities and perspectives can be given consideration early on.
And yes, I do realize that this is a unique relationship to have with a director. And I’m grateful that it’s continued to be so creatively rewarding after so much time.