Movie Review - Valentino: The Last Emperor

By Tom Macy

March 27, 2009

Someone's been stabbing that fashion dummy.

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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.

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