In 1998 a young filmmaker called Olivier Meyrou was invited by Pierre Bergé, the long-term partner of Yves Saint-Laurent, to film the pair at the height of their success. He spent three years capturing the most intimate moments of their everyday lives, forming a close circle of trust. But when the film found a distributor Bergé insisted the footage never be seen, despite not having seen any of it himself.
In 2015, two years before his death, Bergé finally gave permission for it to be shown and now, nearly two decades after filming was wrapped up, 11 years after Saint-Laurent died, Yves Saint-Laurent: The Last Collections will be released in cinemas this week. Despite what he calls an “ugly fight”, Meyrou insists there is no bad blood.
“When I wrote to him to tell him we had a distributor in 2005, he opposed it completely,” Meyrou said of the film, which features footage filmed between 1998 and 2001 around the time that Saint-Laurent, then in his early 60s, was becoming increasingly reclusive and reliant on Bergé, the co-founder and business mastermind of the brand.
“Bergé was a very powerful figure in the French system and he was scary to a lot of people. I was disappointed, but I didn’t want to struggle with them to release it. That wasn’t the philosophy of the film.”
When Bergé finally saw the film, at a cinema rented specially for the private showing, he “loved it”, Meyrou said. But the director couldn’t bring himself to attend. “I was mad at him for 15 years. He pretended that I never did a film with them, that it was just for my personal archives. It was an ugly fight because it’s so easy to pick on someone who is weaker than you are.
“When he asked to see the film, I said it’s not because a billionaire is going to ask me to see the film that I come. Now that’s a regret. The smart human thing would have been to go there and discuss it with him, but I was still hurt.”
Meyrou believes that Bergé asked him to film the pair at work in the first place because he “knew he would be important in that film, more than if we had shot that film 20 years earlier”. When it came to its release, however, the same control became the obstacle. “Even though he was completely free during shooting, I don’t think he understood what documentaries were about,” said Meyrou.
“You’re really close to someone for a long time, but at some point you do your own film. He wasn’t used to that, because he was a man used to control.”
The way control played out between Saint-Laurent and Bergé in their relationship is a central theme to the film and one delicately depicted. While most of Saint-Laurent’s daily life appears to be managed by Bergé, in a scene in which Saint-Laurent insists a particular model wears a particular dress for a show at the last minute, Bergé reworks the line-up to make it happen. Meyrou says this respect was the most important element to convey. “It’s actually why I like him today. Bergé had a really big ego, but for 40 years he accepted that he was behind YSL and I think that’s love. That’s beautiful. He’s not a bad guy.”
This will be the first time many will have seen such closely shot footage of the designer in the last decade of his life.
“Some people are going to get very disturbed because Yves is old. It was a beautiful time, because you had the feeling that he was getting weaker but the house he had created 40 years earlier was supporting him,” said Meyrou, recalling a scene where Saint-Laurent is stumbling on the stairs. “You could feel his suffering.”
Twenty years after it was filmed, Meyrou believes Yves Saint-Laurent: The Last Collections (or Célébration, as it has been released in the US) has been through a metamorphosis. “When we had to restore the film it was a weird feeling. I did a contemporary documentary film, but now it is more like a testimony of an era that doesn’t exist any longer. I never shot this. It took me some time to understand.”