Photography by Steeve Beckouet. Styling by Laurent Dombrowicz. Shirt by Louis Vuitton. Jacket by Gucci.
In an early scene in Yves Saint Laurent, director Jalil Lespert’s forthcoming biopic of the French fashion legend, a guest at Saint Laurent’s debut show as Christian Dior’s successor sits entranced, saying of one gown, “It’s so wonderfully simple and supple—almost neglectful.”
That same sentiment might be used to describe the singular appeal of Pierre Niney, the lithe 24-year-old actor who brings both grace and rage to the film’s enigmatic, notorious title character. France’s porcelain-skinned answer to Andrew Garfield, Niney possesses a stealth beauty often reserved for certain models, the ones who silently invite you to scrutinize their facial contours, as if they’re inherently holding something back.
Niney’s pale allure is underscored by the movie’s muted, ethereal palette, which suggests Lespert took some of Saint Laurent’s maxims as formal inspiration (“Every man needs aesthetic ghosts in order to live,” the designer once said). But it’s the actor’s startling commitment that makes Yves a not-to-be-missed portrait.
“I don’t have too much in common with Yves,” Niney says, “but there is that passion for work. That’s what he trusted. To be dedicated to what you do is to forget fear and go further into creation.”
Niney may insist he shares little with Saint Laurent, but the more he speaks, the more parallels emerge. Saint Laurent grew up in French Algeria, drawing and designing dresses for his mother and sisters. Niney was raised in Paris under the influence of his own mother, a former art teacher, and his sister, an architect. An actor from the age of 11, Niney was reared on Molière, and in 2010, at 20, he became the youngest troupe resident of France’s esteemed La Comédie-Française (“I thought it was a prank,” he says of the invite). In 1957, when he was just 21, Saint Laurent took over for Dior, his precocity doubted by those afraid he was too inexperienced to helm France’s chief fashion house.
Yves Saint Laurent vividly tackles its subject’s professional pressures and his sexuality, which begins as stunted energy channeled into obsessive designs, nearly gets him killed during a brief stint of military service, and finally evolves into the ultimate existential—and stylish—liberation. When Saint Laurent gives in to his attraction to industrialist Pierre Bergé (Guillaume Gallienne), who remained with the designer until his 2008 death (and who advised on the film), the surrender is christened with fervent, violent kisses (picture Ennis and Jack’s lip-locking, push-and-shove reunion in Brokeback Mountain, but along the Seine).
“Yves was a really sexual person, but he had to discover it,” Niney says. “Pierre Bergé and Yves were so interesting because they helped each other. Pierre needed to be needed, and he also revealed Yves to himself. Pierre assumed his sexuality in a really elegant way, which I like, and he told Yves, ‘You can assume yours, too.’ When Yves embraced it, it changed his work.” He adds, “In the ’70s, there was something much more sensual. When he did that [nude] black-and-white photo for his perfume, it was one of the most impactful images he ever created.”
Niney had unfettered access to Bergé, who confided to the actor previously unknown facts about Saint Laurent’s humor (he did impressions), the couple’s violent fights (which informed scenes in the film), and secrets too personal to spill. The actor padded this intel with quotes from Saint Laurent pals Mick Jagger and Catherine Deneuve, chats with the designer’s party-girl muse Betty Catroux (“she discussed everything—drugs, parties”), and five months of Fashion 101, which sparked a newfound fascination with everyone from Chanel to Hedi Slimane.
But perhaps what makes Niney’s performance so beautifully fluid, a potent embodiment of Saint Laurent’s swirl of contradictions, is yet more kinship with the icon. “Pierre kept saying that Yves never found a way out of childhood,” Niney says. “But I believe in the very strong link between an artist and youth. I’m becoming an adult, but I’m trying not to lose all my childishness. My job is to believe I’m somebody else and make others believe it. That’s a game—you say, ‘I’ll be your prince and you’ll be the king.’ I’m doing that every day and I’m paid for it. How magic is that?”
Yves Sain Laurent opens in cinemas June 25.