When Valentino retired in October of 2007 it was the end of an era. His last show as designer of the Valentino couture house kicks off Matt Tyrnauer’s excellent documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor.
Tyrnauer’s cameras are there to capture the high drama: the thundering standing ovation that greets Valentino as he walks the catwalk for the final time, the rapturous praise that follows the show and the tears, the endless tears that flow from the collagened, Botoxed faces of his patrons, clients, models and one quiet man standing nonchalantly just outside the whole circus, Giancarlo Giammetti, Valentino’s former lover of 12 years and business partner for the entirety of his 45-year career. At one point Giammetti is asked by an Italian reporter to describe in one word how it feels to live his entire life in the shadow of another man, to devote his entire professional life to supporting him. Giammetti’s response? “Felicità” (happiness).
Valentino was among a generation of couturiers who transformed fashion from a luxury craft into the spectacle of flamboyant glamour that it is today. And among those designers — Yves St Laurent, for instance — Valentino was the last one to still be the designer of his own house. Whereas St Laurent was an experimental showman, bending gender, ethnicity, culture and art, Valentino was, to the last, an exemplar of the Old Hollywood glamour that made him want to design in the first place. When I think of Valentino I think of gowns, immaculately handcrafted flowing gowns. He was adamant in his boast of knowing exactly what women want: to be beautiful and glamorous. And he treated glamour and beauty as if they were fixed things with stringent rules to be adhered to. At one point in the film he spits that the ugliest thing imaginable is to see a woman’s ankles in an evening gown.
Tyrnauer’s film traces the last tempestuous year of Valentino’s career — two couture shows, a museum retrospective, a 45th-anniversary party, receiving France’s Legion d’Honeur, constantly fencing around rumours of his retirement, to say nothing of the endless financial intrigues and issues (haute couture is notoriously unsustainable financially) and pausing every once in a while to fill the viewer in on how Valentino came to be Italy’s premier celebrity designer.
But the core of Tyrnauer’s film is the particular intimacy between Valentino and Giammetti. Giammetti is more than just a business partner; he is the maestro of the Valentino empire, quietly orchestrating everything so that Valentino (who apparently never had a sense for anything beyond luxury) can go about designing — the highly insulated centre of a vast machine. And he is grateful for this insulation and mindful of the tremendous work it takes. Throughout the entire movie, flotillas of helpers and fitters come and go (never mind the atelier of lab-coated seamstresses, most of whom have been with Valentino for generations) but the only other opinion that matters and is listened to is Giammetti’s. And as Valentino reads his Legion d’Honeur acceptance speech, when it comes time to thank his partner of almost half a century, he almost can’t get through it for crying.
For all of Valentino’s posturing and finesse and for all the procession of luxury settings (he owns two villas in Rome, a chateau in Paris, a brownstone in London, a penthouse in Manhattan, a chalet in Gstaad and a yacht with a permanent staff of 12) there are wonderful moments of humanity throughout The Last Emperor, mostly when the frustration hits, the pretense breaks down and all these suited Italians turn into nattering fags. Giammetti and Valentino needle each other as only intimates can: They call each other fat; Giammetti not-so-delicately hints that Valentino should cut back on the fake tanning; André Leon Talley goes apeshit when Valentino presents him with a custom-made muumuu. The opening of the retrospective is likewise rife with precious snippets: Valentino and Karl Lagerfeld run around the exhibit hand-in-hand like two giddy schoolgirls; when his seamstresses past and present file in Valentino weeps openly.
It’s these snippets that make Tyrnauer’s film. Already his credentials are suspect — he’s a special correspondent to Vanity Fair and the doc veers dangerously close to a puff piece, the kind of meaningless slobber you see on Fashion Television. But, like couture, the beauty is in the details: Tyrnauer and his crew excel at capturing the network of intimacies and relationships that make both Valentino the brand and Valentino the man. In a culture that worships the designer as a singular genius, The Last Emperor excels at paying the emperor his due reverence, all the while taking care to notice just what (and who) it takes to keep the empire afloat.
Check out our video conversation with Valentino from Sep 2008.
Valentino: The Last Emperor opens in select Canadian cities on Fri, Jul 10:
Vancouver: Cinemark Tinseltown (www.cinemark.com)
Montreal: Cinema Du Parc (www.cinemaduparc.com)