Directed by Matt Tyrnauer
With Valentino Garavani and Giancarlo Giammetti
If you enjoy a Vanity Fair celebrity profile, you should be right at home with the superficial but giddily entertaining backstage doc Valentino: The Last Emperor , made by Matt Tyrnauer, who works for that magazine.
The subject is the swan song of legendary fashion designer Valentino Garavani, a man in his mid-70s so uncreased that he looks encased in plastic, with dyed brown hair, skin the colour of oak flooring and a frozen half-smile on his face. Something S.J. Perelman wrote about Liberace comes to mind: "We looked upon him as some great gorgeous peacock who shed enchantment on our lives and then flapped off into obscurity."
Valentino is as notable for his cult of personality as his soigné dresses. The film covers two years of Valentino's flapping-off process, before his 2007 retirement. There's poignancy here: The man who clothed Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy, and who gave Julia Roberts her Oscar dress, must now fade into the background because corporations are turning the European fashion houses into mass-market brands.
The film tries to whip up some drama around this down-market shift: "Is this your last show?" ask the journalists who crowd around him after each show. Valentino purses his lips, shrugs and equivocates. Sometimes we see him making gnomic pronouncements: "I know what women want. They want to be beautiful." Or: "I love my beauty. It's not my fault." (Well, what were you expecting? Umberto Eco?)
Throughout the film he is accompanied by his long-time business partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, a man as sociable and charming as Valentino is prickly, and apparently the only person alive who can criticize Valentino's design, waistline or habit of over-tanning. Though the film is vague on the details, Giammetti was Valentino's lover years ago. For 50 years, he has been his business partner, sounding board and opulent-lifestyle-enabler (we get to visit the palace outside of Paris, the villa in Rome, the jet that carries Valentino's six matching pugs, and the yacht; even by the standards of rich celebrities, Valentino lives très haute on the hog).
Valentino doesn't provide a lot of context for the designer's place in the fashion world, but we do get a glimpse of him at work. There's a design for a dress he conceives at the last minute for a collection. Promptly, his wonderfully fractious head seamstress, Antonietta de Angelis, goes into action, clucking and complaining to her lab-coated assistants. A twig-limbed young model, wearing only a thong, stands silently while various hands wrap bits of cloth around her body.
Tyrnauer's template here, as is clear by the use of Nino Rota's score, is Federico Fellini's 1960 film La Dolce Vita , with Valentino cast as the moody centre of this mad celebrity carousel. Valentino and Giammetti reminisce about the " La Dolce Vita era" in Rome, when they first met. Throughout the film, celebrities pop in and out. There's Elton John getting out of a car, or Anne Hathaway in the front row of a show. Joan Collins, tripping down the red carpet, is asked by a journalist, "What is the difference between class and trash?" "Darling," she laughs, "I have NO idea!"
Some of what appears onscreen is head-shakingly strange, such as the moment when André Leon Talley, American editor-at-large for Vogue magazine, sees Valentino's collection and crows, "Triumph of the will! It's triumph of the will."
All this culminates in Valentino's elaborately staged swan song in Rome with 600 VIPs and 200,000 rabble for a three-day Roman-meets-Oriental-themed blowout. The event includes a retrospective of the designer's gowns lining the walls of the Ara Pacis Museum. There's also a black-tie ball at the Villa Borghese and at the Temple of Venus, overlooking the Coliseum, a public spectacle with models flying on wires, their gowns trailing down like dragonfly tails, as they toss flowers to the crowd below.
You can almost hear the ghosts of ancient Romans whispering, "Oooh. Maybe a bit much."