Movie Review - Valentino: The Last Emperor
By Tom Macy
March 27, 2009

Someone's been stabbing that fashion dummy.

My idea of fashion is spending 20 minutes at the Gap every six months. So, a documentary about Valentino Garavani, the Haute Coture icon (I totally had to Wikipedia that) and designer of the most glamorous gowns made over the last 45 years, probably isn't for me. Right?

At first it appeared my apprehension was vindicated as the film opens backstage at a fashion show. I immediately started having painful flashbacks of being forced to watch Sex and the City (I freaking hate that show). As personnel frantically provide last minute tweaks with a frenzied intensity that implies failure to get on the runway at the exact moment looking perfect would result in execution, I shook my head and thought, "Get a life, people." But before I had a chance to tune out and start replaying the bathroom fight scene from The Bourne Ultimatum in my head imaging myself as Jason Bourne (open mouth, insert foot) my focus was drawn to the small, overly tanned man, that emerged amidst the swirling chaos.

Valentino, carrying an air of such supreme royalty, is silently worshipped by all around him. Periodically being interviewed, he answers questions with a directly disinterested flavor that is infused with a condescension that, only because he's totally oblivious to it, is oddly appealing. At first you assume his tongue must be at least slightly planted in his cheek, but quickly you realize that this guy is totally for real. When the show finishes without a slip up, everyone takes a gratified sigh of relief (including myself. Thank goodness no one had to be put down). As the models immaculately parade down the runway for a final curtain call, they are met with polite applause, but when his highness steps out from behind the curtain, the house really comes down. To this point, all we've seen him do is lounge backstage like a Sultan while everyone else is cheating death, and now he saunters out to showers of rapturous praise? If this scenario were explained to me I would probably find it nauseating. But, curiously, like the rest of Matt Tyrnauer's Valentino: The Last Emperor, what could easily induce an eye-roll is genuinely heart-warming. Valentino's reception is a pure expression of love, a love that he clearly feels very deeply and one that he reciprocates, in weird pharonic-like way.

Thankfully, Tyrnauer, former editor and writer of Vanity Fair, is not concerned with a glamorous portrait of high fashion, but with what's - pardon the pun - underneath its dress. Given total access to film within the bizarre bubble of luxury that is Valentino's domain, he chronicles two years in the autumn of Valentino's 45-year career. With the possibility of retirement looming in the face of a changing industry, Tyrnauer could not have picked a better time to examine this enigmatic character (apparently the timing was accidental).

But you'd never know anything was different for Valentino. He seems completely at ease as he conducts the army of assistants and seamstresses with an oblivious offhandedness. There does not appear to be any altering of behavior in the presence of the camera crew. Valentino remains comfortable in his own skin - even though it may look like it came from an alligator - and acts as naturally as he probably ever does. However, the intriguing look deep inside Valentino's lavish lifestyle does not beget an understanding of what makes the man tick. This is because Valentino seems to always be performing, regardless of whether there are cameras, so while he remains the subject of Tyrnauer's film, he is not its soul. That soul would be his partner and companion Giancarlo Giammetti.

The bond between Valentino and his perennial behind-the-scenes man, who is just as responsible for the billion-dollar empire as Valentino himself, is the film's real treasure. Giancarlo and Valentino have spent nearly every day together for the past 45 years (Giancarlo estimates they have spent a total of two months apart in that time) and in exploring their remarkable relationship the film shifts from being a profile about a fashion icon and becomes a love story.

They are quite a pair, hilariously bickering ad nauseum. In a particularly memorable exchange, Valentino asks what Giancarlo really thought of his meeting with the press to which Giancarlo responds, "I think you're a little tan."

Showing incredible patience with the never satisfied Valentino, Giancarlo seems to be the only one who truly understands him. And, unlike his companion, Giancarlo is more willing, or perhaps able, to let his guard down, helping us understand that Valentino The Man is un-understandable. He explains that while a genius at fashion, Valentino is "a disaster at everything else."

The often frustratingly dismissive Valentino puts the audience strongly on Giancarlo's side. Though he never appears starved for affection, Giancarlo is perceived as grossly under appreciated. While clearly fond of his companion, Valentino comes off as self-absorbed to a point where he is no longer capable of truly connecting with another person. This conflict, which Tyrnauer never directly comments on, sets up the film's most memorable and a surprisingly touching moment. While accepting an award, Valentino becomes completely verklempt as he thanks Giancarlo for his loyalty. Having difficulty speaking, the misty moment it is an appropriate metaphor for a relationship that is truly beyond words.

This relationship serves as the film's anchor and adds substantial weight to what could have been a talking head-riddled profile filled with gowns and gossip. Credit Tyrnauer for showing some restraint and allowing the story of Giancarlo and Valentino, one he never could have expected, to emerge. By not pushing an agenda, Tyrnauer avoids the misstep that befalls so many documentaries where one feels tangibly manipulated by filmmakers who choose to show us only what suggests the most compelling story. Here, Tyrnauer is rewarded for allowing himself to deviate from an obvious path.

As with the opening, the film is bookended by an exercise in frivolity with an elaborate multi-day celebration of Valentino's 45-year career. The finale, a fireworks ridden opus, set to "O Mio Babbino Caro," complete with wire-rigged floating models in 15-foot red dresses, all set in front of Rome's Coliseum, is the definition of profligacy. But it puts the film in appropriate context because ultimately, Valentino: The Last Emperor isn't opening the world's eyes to a global crisis (or on second thought maybe it is, considering the cost of such an event might answer some questions about Citibank's bottom line). In the end it's best not to trouble yourself with ethics. As with the rest of the film, while on the surface it may be ridiculous, pretentious and outrageous, if you take the time to look a little closer, you'll see it's also beautiful.