During its lesser moments, Valentino: The Last Emperor unfolds like an obnoxious E! special, basking in the glamour, decadence and name-and-face-dropping glory of Europe's lavish haute couture.
First time director Matt Tyrnauer betrays his Vanity Fair puff-piece-writing roots by lingering far too long on the more trifling aspects of legendary Italian couturier Valentino Garavani's day-to-day existence. Celebrity montage digressions abound, and the director basks in the excess of his subject's ridiculous luxury.
Valentino is shown skiing in Gstaad, sailing in Venice, throwing parties in his country mansion and rubbing elbows with actors and fashionistas as he trots across the globe with his army of spoiled pugs. The game of "spot the famous face" that Tyrnauer plays is both overwhelming and irritating, but he is allowed such unmitigated access to Valentino at a point when the designer's career is undergoing such extreme change (read: coming to an end) that the documentary has inadvertent moments of insight despite the director's worst efforts.
We're given a fly-on-the-wall view of Valentino during the course of 2006 and 2007 as he conceptualizes a collection for a Paris show, bickers with his business partner/lover Giancarlo Giametti and prepares for an epic blowout in Rome to celebrate his 45th year in the profession.
All the while, talk of Valentino's possible retirement floats through the fashion world and casts a blanket of fear and uncertainty over the veteran glitterati who believe that retirement would mark "the end of couture." The fear seems well-founded; the company is shown to be already out of Valentino's control, run instead by Matteo Marzotto, a money-minded CEO who is trying to find new, more financially lucrative ways to exploit Valentino's name as a brand.
The purist, old school philosophy of the 70-year-old Valentino is at odds with the corporation's desire to cater to the latest trends of contemporary fashion. "I make dresses for women who actually wear them!" Valentino barks at one point. He balks at a young hairstylist's desire to be "a bit more edgy" with a model's hair. "I don't want a crazy cut. I want it to be beautiful!"
Giametti boasts at one point that none of the seamstresses use sewing machines--incredibly, every article of clothing that Valentino designs is stitched by hand. The commitment and passion of the artist and his closest associates and employees is a wonder but doesn't matter to the higher-ups.
In one sense, the film is really about this hostile takeover of one man's art and business and the resulting fallout. That fallout is punctuated in the film's post-script announcing the inevitable: two months after his Roman gala (which involved a small city's worth of attendees in addition to the 700-something VIPS) he retired and was replaced by 35-year-old Alessandra Facchinetti.
In his personal life, the designer is shown to be insecure, controlling, temperamental, self-deprecating, at times egomaniacal, and soft at heart. His diva tendencies are balanced by a deep affection for those closest to him, especially Giametti. Their contentious relationship is the engine of the film and summed up in a scene of Valentino receiving an award from the French government that ends with him tearfully thanking a beaming Giametti.
Giametti, who earlier in the film acknowledges to reporters that he lives in the shadow of a legend, seems more pleased to be recognized publicly than moved by Valentino's gratitude.
Unfortunately, Tyrnauer never expounds on this kind of relationship nuance because he's too preoccupied with the incidental opulence of the surrounding environments. He spends too much time filming runway shoots, gratuitously devoting his privileged and seemingly omnipresent camera to the surface beauty of the money, the models, the aristocrats, the architecture, the landscape. This kind of wide-eyed, touristy approach to the topic cheapens the poignancy of Valentino's bittersweet decline and lends the film a tabloid quality, that aforementioned E! Entertainment vibe.
These problems all come to fruition in the last 20 minutes, when the subject of Valentino takes a back seat to the decadence of his final party. Journalists, fellow designers and celebrity after celebrity cavort in the Temple of Venus against a backdrop of fireworks and flying models (decoratively suspended above the gathering). It's an incredible sight to behold, but one to which Tyrnauer devotes a laughable amount of time.
This insistence on skewing to the worthless set dressing, the shallow periphery of a complex and passionate human being, ultimately makes the film a slight, entertaining diversion. For Valentino, luxury is the earned payoff for a life well-lived; with Valentino: The Last Emperor, you get all the luxury but little of the life.
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