Ever since Marion Cotillard warbled her way to an Oscar as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose in 2007, French cinema has been tackling the nation's 20th-century icons with gusto. From singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg (in 2010's Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life) to fashion designer Coco Chanel (Coco Before Chanel and Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, both 2009) to filmmaker Jean Renoir (2012's Renoir), the Gallic biopic has been unstoppable of late.
"[It shows] we can do proper biopics with huge ambitions like Americans do," says French actor Pierre Niney, who plays the latest legend to receive this treatment: fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.
Together with his lover and business partner, Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent turned the YSL house into a global empire; his designs were so revered that he became the first living designer to be honoured by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art with a solo exhibition, in 1983.
"I think he's unique," says director-writer-composer Bertrand Bonello. "I think he's maybe the only one I can say who is not only a fashion designer; he's a real artist."
Bonello is in post-production on Saint Laurent, starring Gaspard Ulliel, best known for playing the young killer Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal Rising, as the designer, and regular Dardenne Brothers actor Jérémie Renier as Bergé.
Before that, however, comes Yves Saint Laurent. Directed by Jalil Lespert, it stars Niney, with his fellow player at French state theatre company La Comédie-Française, Guillaume Gallienne, as Bergé.
With the script inspired by Laurence Benaim's biography, it's a story about creativity and madness - one that Lespert compares to Jack London's novel Martin Eden (about a writer "coming from nowhere") and to Milos Foreman's Amadeus, about the composer, Mozart.
The film zeroes in on the Saint Laurent-Bergé relationship - although Lespert admits this initially concerned him. "I was a bit worried because it was a film about fashion set in the haute couture world, telling a love story between two men, and I feared the film could become some kind of ghetto film, something hyped, something very Parisian," he says. "So I just tried to prevent all of this. I wanted this love story to speak to the general public, to as many people as possible."
Niney remembers a screening in Paris where he spoke to a father who had, somewhat reluctantly, brought his children. "He told me 'I was a bit scared with the kids and even for myself - [watching] two gay guys - but I just saw the love story and I wasn't even shocked. I even liked it when they kissed!' I was happy to hear that from a guy who was really narrow-minded in the beginning."
Partly, this comes from the fact that the film doesn't focus particularly on Saint Laurent and Bergé's sexuality. "It's not a movie about two gay people," says Niney. "It's a love story, and could be a man or woman. It's about that special link between two human beings that was interesting … Pierre Bergé was always saying, 'Yeah, I'm gay but it's like being left-handed. Do we really need to talk about it?' I like this point of view and I like that Jalil treated it this way. It's just a love story."
And so to the clothes. Even though he only designed for women, Lespert thinks there's something in YSL's work that has a common touch. "His work appealed to the most popular woman and the most bourgeois woman, who could actually pay for the dresses. He was very universal and that explains why he has been much loved during his life and still is today."
To find an actor able to convey all this, he turned to Niney. Casting the 25-year-old proved to be one of the easier decisions. "I made up my mind in about 40 seconds," says Lespert. "He had real grace and intelligence. And this is something you can't fake."
To convince the film's financers, he organised a photo shoot with Niney and some models, dressing him in Saint Laurent's trademark 1950s-style glasses. They agreed he was the right man.
Lespert and Niney also had unfettered access to the archives at the Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation. It meant they could raid past collections - some 5,000 items - and even use the actual clothes (copying the dresses proved difficult, with many fabrics from the past no longer made). Inevitably, working with dresses that were more than 50 years old meant the shooting was painstakingly slow. "You realise, seeing them worn again, what a genius Yves Saint Laurent was," Lespert says.
While Saint Laurent died in 2008, Niney got to spend time with both Bergé and model Betty Catroux (whom Saint Laurent described as his twin, as well as calling her his female incarnation). "Betty was talking about him really freely, without any taboos - she was talking about anything: drugs, sex, partying. And Pierre was talking a lot about his darker side - the way he could be selfish sometimes and the self-destruction. Only things that his closest friends could tell you."
There was more - particularly Saint Laurent's mental illness. "It had a real impact on his life," says Niney. "He was a manic-depressive and he knew it at 22 years old. It's a fragile base to start your life, even more when you're a celebrity. He always said himself, 'At 21, I became one of the most famous guys on the planet and that was the trap of my life'."
As much as the film is a Saint Laurent biopic, Lespert is keen to show the evolution of French life - from being "still a very closed society" in the early 1950s, via the sexual revolution and women's liberation of the 1960s, to disenchantment in the 1970s. "In 1976, which is when the film ends, you can already feel what is going to come - punk, the '80s, the bling-bling years. So it was important to portray all this with a lot of care."
It worked: Yves Saint Laurent took in €494,000 (HK$5.3 million) on its first day of release in France and topped the French box office for a number of weeks. "I think people are surprised and happy to discover the aspects of YSL's life that they didn't know," Niney says. "We're happy because there are a lot of people coming to see it and they don't care about fashion - and they're moved."
Quite how Bonello feels, with his film still to be released, remains to be seen. Traditionally, if there are two films about the same topic, usually the first one out succeeds. Bonello has the starrier cast (including Blue is the Warmest Colour's Léa Seydoux), but as Niney sees it, there's room for more than one YSL film on the cinematic catwalk. "It will be another point of view," he says. "The history of Yves Saint Laurent is so rich, you could do a thousand movies."
Yves Saint Laurent opens on Thursday