The Last of the Best

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valentino

Valentino: The Last Emperor is not your off-the-rack documentary.

So many documentaries in recent years have been devoted to statements about how we’re all doomed, ripped off and essentially bound for hell in a handbasket, that director Matt Tyrnauer’s portrait of a fading legend of haute couture is a refreshing and frequently entertaining change of pace.

Since he emerged in the early ‘60s as dressmaker to Jackie Kennedy and other international trendsetters, Valentino Garavani – known to the world as, simply, Valentino – has enjoyed the reputation of being one of the foremost high fashion designers. The film focuses on the year leading up to his 45th anniversary, a period that’s at once business as usual and the beginning of the end of his reign as tastemaker to the elite.

valentino_last_emperor_lValentino is a multimillionaire and, frankly, a spoiled little guy who rules everyone around him like an ancient king. He travels with five matching pugs, takes skiing holidays at Gstaad, hobnobs with royalty and pushes his weight around like a sulky prima donna whenever he’s displeased. But it quickly becomes clear that he’s earned those millions and the right to live as he pleases through old-fashioned hard work. He expects no less than painstaking excellence from the loyal army of seamstresses who turn his designs into reality, sewing every last stitch by hand. He fretfully second-guesses the decisions of his longtime lover and partner Giancarlo Giammetti. But it’s clear that he drives no one harder than he drives himself. He’s earned the loyalty of his team by being one of the very best there is at what he does.

While Valentino ultimately becomes a surprisingly sympathetic figure 72530370EA015_Iman_And_Valeover the course of the film, we never feel that we truly get to know him. Giammetti, on the other hand, emerges as an approachable and eminently likeable presence. Charming, sophisticated and undoubtedly tough as nails in a negotiation, he’s the man who keeps the trains running on time in Valentino’s little kingdom. Though he frequently takes the brunt of his famous partner’s frustrations and nervous flare-ups, he’s mostly unflappable. While Valentino hovers aloof and tightly wrapped backstage during the various fashion shows depicted in the film, Giammetti is in the audience sweating bullets for the both of them, and genuinely thrilled for his friend when the designs are a success. The moments in which the camera catches the two of them at ease together – Valentino self-conscious and tightly contained, Giammetti generous and dedicated to making everything turn out for the best – are quietly touching.

At the same time that planning for the anniversary celebration is underway, Valentino is chafing at the realization that his time is coming to an end. His company is slowly being bought up by a multinational corporation, and he wants no part of seeing his name appear on sunglasses, belt buckles and all the other kitschy byproducts of the fashion industry. Having learned his trade under the tutelage of masters whose lineage goes back to the early 20th century, he does his best to ignore rumors that a 35-year-old with no such roots is being groomed as his replacement when he retires.

The final act is devoted to the massive (and massively overproduced) anniversary celebration in Rome. Countesses, princesses, movie stars and other famous designers jet in to pay homage, ooh and ah over an impressive retrospective display of Valentino designs over the years, and sit back to watch a performance so loaded with flying dancers and fireworks that Valentino himself wonders if it isn’t reducing his career to a Cirque du Soleil production.

It would be easy to dismiss the world of Valentino, with its incredibly expensive gowns, air-kissing celebrities and constant stage management, as frivolous and inconsequential – but you could say the same of any artist. And make no mistake, Valentino is a genuine artist in his craft. The moments in the film when he orders the documentary cameras to stop recording so he can have a few minutes to himself remind us that, for all his wealth and position and perpetual impossible suntan, he’s still just a human being living in the same world as the rest of us. Watching the events unfold that will eventually transform his little empire into something lesser turns out to have a lot more in common with those end-of-times documentaries than one would have guessed. The surface glitz of his world remains, but without Valentino at the center of it, the substance will be sadly diminished.

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PG-13 Running Time: 96 minutes

June 4, 2009 · Posted in DVD  
    

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