Movie Review - Valentino: The Last Emperor

By Tom Macy

March 27, 2009

Someone's been stabbing that fashion dummy.

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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.

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