Valentino: The Last Emperor
Directed by Matt Tyrnauer
Valentino: The Last Emperor is like any fashion show – lavish, beautiful and entertaining, but with little depth. The documentary, directed by Vanity Fair’s Special Correspondent Matt Tyrnauer, attempts to work as a profile piece on Valentino Garavani, the now 77-year-old designer and head of the so-called “last” haute couture house, yet it is unsuccessful in its focus.
The film centers on the end of Valentino’s career, which includes an extravagant event for his 45th anniversary of being in the business, coinciding with his 45-year relationship with his business and personal partner, Giancarlo Giammetti. The lifestyles of the rich and famous abound here. The film is shot in many of Valentino’s houses and villas, with his five pugs following him from party to runway to office to yacht.
The most entertaining parts of the film include the exchanges between Valentino and Giancarlo. Their constant banter is charming, and rings with the familiarity of any lifelong relationship. At one point, Giancarlo puts much time and effort into the design of a runway set with a desert theme. Valentino tells him the sand is ridiculous and he won’t be dressing the models in safari garb. To which Giancarlo shoots back: “Your belly is showing, you’re looking fat.”
Valentino is always hyperbolic and sensational – he is one of the best at what he does and he knows it. He is dramatic in most everything he says, at one point remarking that “an evening dress that shows a woman’s ankles when she walks is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.” While the film attempts to function as a fly-on-the-wall inside look at a fashion house and an in-depth look at a fashion icon, there are few interviews with Valentino; many times he even refuses to be filmed. This is no personal look at Valentino’s character. The most revealing information comes from Giancarlo and others in his entourage, while Valentino has no active part in telling his own story.
The film doesn’t document the inner workings of haute couture either. The film vaguely shows how one dress is formed: Valentino wakes one morning with a vision of a white dress and then his league of underlings work hard to fulfill this vision. A deeper understanding of the construction and workings would have been worthwhile. There was no talk of how a line is developed, or how Valentino’s work has evolved through the decades. It is never made clear what makes Valentino so great.
There is an attempt to add conflict and develop themes, but it is weak and contrived. There is slight generational tension, as Valentino and Giancarlo are of a different era of fashion, in which dresses are hand stitched with the richest materials and are always tasteful and elegant. Their old-world outlook clashes with the current fashion model, in which accessories are the real source of income rather than runway materials. Valentino also struggles with the end of his illustrious career. He states that all he knows is fashion and is a disaster at everything else, but the viewer cannot feel much empathy as Valentino is so guarded with the camera.
Only at one moment is there a breakthrough – in accepting the Medal of the City of Paris, Valentino breaks down while thanking Giancarlo, who he recognizes as being who made him the successful and wealthy man he is today. As such, Valentino: The Last Emperor is a love story that celebrates beauty, wealth and fashion, while showcasing an endearing lifelong relationship between two men, but ultimately lacks the substance needed for it to be a meaningful or insightful documentary.