French Designer Yves Saint Laurent died nearly four years ago, but rival film companies are battling it out over who has the right to shoot his biography and who is allowed to portray the clothes that set the fashion agenda for a generation.

With high-profile hires, big-name designers and dark hints of legal action, the two camps are pressing ahead with plans to tell the story of the man who became a global fashion icon.

Few attendees at the EFM this week can have failed to notice the fierce communications battle being waged by French sales companies SND and Films Distribution over rival biopics, Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent and Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent.

In their latest salvo, Paris-based production house Mandarin Cinema and Films Distribution announced on Monday that César-winning costume designer Anaïs Romand, had signed to oversee the wardrobe of Saint Laurent.

Mandarin co-chief Eric Altmayer also said that luxury goods group PPR, which owns the YSL brand, had given its blessing for Romand to reproduce Yves Saint Laurent’s designs for Saint Laurent.


Films Distribution kicked off the market with a high-profile advertising campaign showing first images of Vogue model and actor Gaspard Ulliel as the designer in Bonello’s film as well as an announcement that Jérémie Renier and Léa Seydoux had joined the cast as Yves Saint Laurent’s life and business partner Pierre Bergé and late model and jewellery designer Loulou de la Falaise.

SND responded with news of a slew of sales for Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent including to Entertainment One for the UK, Canada and Australia and AB Svensk, for Scandinavia.

Near simultaneously, producer Wassim Béji of WY Productions and SND also released a series of glossy photos showing Pierre Niney in the guise of Yves Saint Laurent, Guillaume Gallienne as Bergé and Charlotte Le Bon as 1950s model and friend Victoire Doutreleau.

Niney and Gallienne were among those who tweeted the photos from their personal accounts. Lespert, meanwhile, tweeted the sales story that appeared in Screen’s Berlin dailies.


But beyond the fight for sales, tweets and trade column inches, Mandarin’s announcement that Romand is set to recreate Yves Saint Laurent’s outfits for Bonello’s Saint Laurent also challenges threats by Bergé, who claims moral rights over the late designer’s body of work, that he will take legal action if Mandarin attempts to reproduce the YSL collection without his pre-authorisation.

“This pre-authorisation is imperative for the body of the artist’s creations… without it, the exploitation of Yves Saint Laurent’s original works, or eventual imitations, will be regarded as an act of infringement and will result in judicial proceedings,” Bergé’s lawyer Emmanuel Pierrat wrote in a letter to Screen last November.

Mandarin’s Altmayer is adamant, however, that PPR, which acquired the YSL brand in 1999, ultimately controls copyright.

“PPR since the beginning has decided to take a neutral stance, refusing to favour one project over the other. We approached Francois-Henri Pinault early on in development in June 2011, way before the rival project, and he was immediately very enthusiastic,” said Altmayer referring to PPR’s CEO.

Bergé’s support

Lespert’s picture, meanwhile, has Bergé’s full support. Prior to Berlin, the businessman and philanthropist hosted a glamorous evening at the Fondation Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent for buyers attending Unifrance’s Paris Rendez-vous.

Part of the production will be shot at the foundation which houses the late designer’s atelier as well as 5,000 garments, 15,000 accessories and 35,000 sketches.

“We are the only ones allowed to use Yves Saint Laurent’s dresses, sketches, designs and all his creations which will look amazing on the big screen. PPR, the luxury group who now owns and exploits the Saint Laurent brand around the world, is also supporting Jalil Lespert’s film,” commented SND sales chief Lionel Uzan, referring to the picture as the “official YSL film.”

“Making a movie about the greatest fashion designer of all time without the ability to show the dresses would be like making La Vie En Rose without having Piaf songs!,” he added.

Neither Bergé’s lawyer or PPR responded to Screen’s request for clarification on the issue.

Other rivals

Simultaneous rival productions on the same subject are nothing new in France: The War of the Buttons battle in 2011 and the 2009 tussle between Coco Before Chanel and Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky are two of the more high-profile cases in recent years.

As the sales agent for Coco Before Chanel, Films Distribution’s co-chief Nicholas Brigaud-Robert has been here before and appears to be taking the battle in his stride.

“It’s business as usual. We’re pushing on with sales and the production is going ahead,” he told Screen before the EFM.

Past controversy

It is also not the first time Mandarin Cinema has courted controversy with an unauthorised biographical film.

The company produced Xavier Durringer’s La Conquest charting former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s rise to power in 2007 and the parallel disintegration of his marriage to Cecilia Sarkozy.

Sarkozy was still president, and remarried to model Carla Bruni, when the film premiered in Cannes in 2011. It was the first time in French history a president was the subject of a film while still in power.

He kept his distance from the production, however, telling the press at the time: “Everyone expects me to attempt to stop The Conquest going to Cannes, or believes that I want to see the film before its projection to check what it says… but not at all. One of my principals is respect for creative freedom.”

The rival projects at a glance

Saint Laurent

Director: Bertrand Bonello (House of Tolerance, The Pornographer)
Synopsis: Film will focus on Yves Saint Laurent’s career between 1965 to 1976 when the designer was deemed at the peak of his powers, culminating with the 1976 Russian collection, considered by many as his most influential.
Production Company: Mandarin Cinema, Eric and Nicolas Altmayer
Budget: $20m (€15m)
Cast: Gaspard Ulliel, Jérémie Renier, Léa Seydoux
Screenwriters: Bonello, Thomas Bidegain (The Prophet, Rust and Bone)
Costume designer: Anaïs Romand
Shooting: starts June
Sales: Films Distribution

Yves Saint Laurent

Director: Jalil Lespert (24 Measures and Headwinds)
Synopsis: Opening in Paris in January 1958 on the day Yves Saint Laurent presents his first haute couture collection for Dior and also meets Pierre Bergé, the picture charts the couple’s creation of the Yves Saint Laurent fashion house.
Production Company: Wy Productions, Wassim Béji
Budget: $16m (€12m)
Cast: Pierre Niney, Guillaume Gallienne, Moritz Bleibtreu and Charlotte Le Bon
Screenwriters: Lespert, Marie Pierre Huster (Headwinds, Amitiés Sincères)
Shooting: starts May
Sales: SND
Territories sold: UK, Canada and Australia (Entertainment One) Scandinavia (AB Svensk) Russia and CIS (Top Film Distribution), Portugal ( Lusomundo), Poland (ITI Cinema), Middle East (Italia Films), Germany/Austria (Square One), Czech Republic (AQS), Switerland (Pathé), Turkey (Mediamax) and Airlines (EIM).