If you like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, you'll like this film about fashion icon Valentino. But it's an absorbing, fly-on-the-wall documentary regardless.

James Plath's picture

His name is Valentino Garavani, but he came to be called, simply, Valentino . . . like the haute couture dresses he designed for some of the world's most famous women, among them Jacqueline Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Princess Margaret, and Queen Paola of Belgium.

Like so many documentaries these days, "Valentino: The Last Emperor" doesn't rely on talking heads or a voiceover narrator to tell the biography of an individual. Instead, this 2008 film by Matt Tyrnauer takes a more expressionistic route, taling Valentino and his immediate circle during the period in which he prepared his Paris Collection for Splring/Summer 2006 and planned his 45-year retrospective at the Temple of Venus in Rome in 2007. There are some vintage clips used to illustrate what people are talking about, but for the most part it's real-time shadowing that's predominant.

If this were a biography, it would not be unauthorized. Director of photography Tom Hurwitz and his cameramen follow Valentino and his lover-employee-confidante Giancarlo Giammetti everywhere. We see the hand-stitching that goes on behind the scenes, Valentino sketching designs, and the wizened little man approving or tweaking his creations on tall, high-fashion models (including some nudity). We watch him entertain at his Parisian chateau, ski near his chalet in Gstaad, hide out at his Roman villa, travel aboard his 152-fooot yacht (with its staff of eleven), and get into spates with Giancarlo, his head seamstress, and famed hair stylist Orlando Pita.

Valentino and the others are all aware of the camera, but go about their business anyway. At times, some of them offer asides directly into the camera. Other times, there are half-hearted attempts to avoid the camera--the most memorable coming when an agitated Valentino stops during a walk-and-talk with Giancarlo and hides behind him. What we hear is Valentino saying, "The camera, if it keeps screwing around, I'm out of the film," and then voices drop, we watch them standing like shadows in the corridor, and then they're gone. Maybe we don't hear what's said, but it doesn't matter. We get the gist of things: how Valentino operates, what his life and relationships are like, and why Giancarlo calls him, at one point, "The Last Emperor."

Giancarlo, who has been his constant companion for the past 45 years, has snow-white hair, while Valentino's is brown and his skin, an artificial-looking tan. At some point we see the two of them inside the car after a public appearance and, seeking feedback on how he did, Valentino gets agitated when Giancarlo tells him he's "too tan." An argument ensues, but it's the kind of argument that your grandparents have--people who've been with each other so long that they know what the other is going to say, even before mouths open. And they know how to live with each other, what the boundaries are. To the camera Giancarlo confesses that Valentino is a difficult man, but watching the master sketch and design and argue with his staff, it's easy to see why. Valentino isn't just a fashion icon; he's a fashion genius, and a temperamental one at that.

"Valentino: The Last Emperor" isn't a perfect biography, partly because it depends on viewers' knowledge of the subject to appreciate much of what we see. If you don't know, for example, that he made his mark early with signature red dresses that became known as "Valentino red," you're left guessing, as with other aspects of his life. But even without that knowledge, what we get is a glimpse through a parted curtain into a lifestyle that most people can only dream of. I mean, 99.5 percent of the world can't afford a yacht, much less a huge Andy Warhol portrait to hang in the main living area. And most people who throw parties don't have dinners worthy of a head of state, with a guest list that includes (and we watch them arrive and mill about the "house") Gwneyth Paltrow, Joan Collins, Elton John, and various royals. Which is to say, "Valentino" gives us as much of a glimpse into haute couture life as it does Valentino's. When he gets angry over a gown's execution and says, "An evening dress that reveals a woman's ankles while she's walking is the most disgusting thing I've ever seen," I'm thinking of quite a few things I've seen that could top that. But "reveals" like that give you a pretty good sense of high fashion and high culture, at least according to Valentino.

Thanks to Giancarlo, we also get some sense of the progression in Valentino's fashion world, which was dominated in the '80s by "licensing" and in the '90s by "investors," which leads us eventually to the buy-out and Valentino's retirement. But no insights are served on silver platters. Tyrnauer is a subtle filmmaker who takes his cue from the style of film he's chosen to shoot. Even when Valentino reminisces about his past and Tyrnauer illustrates with montages composed of archival footage, we're left to draw our own conclusions-as, for example, when Valentino talks about the joy that came from going to the movies for the first time with his sister and seeing Hollywood fashion. We're not led to conclude that this may have been a pivotal moment in his life, one which could have formed the basis for his whole outlook on fashion, but it's there for the taking.

"I love beauty," Valentino says to a member of the press who's doing a story on him. "It's not my fault." And then, "I know what women want . . . They want to be beautiful." Which is why all of his dresses are as beautiful as his models. Those who appreciate biographies ought to enjoy this as much as those who love fashion, because, let's face it, the beautiful women and gowns are a bonus for the former. And when we see both behind the scenes and the audience view of the runway showing of Valentino's spring/summer 2006 collection, it's hard not to feel just a twinge of excitement. High fashion and culture can be addictive. Watch "Valentino: The Last Emperor" and you get that feeling.

"Valentino: The Last Emperor" is rated PG-13 for "some nudity and language."

For a DVD, the level of detail is pretty good unless you get to some of those Valentino reds, when there's a little bleeding around the edges. Black are strong enough to provide a decent level of contrast, and colors are bright. There's a layer of film grain throughout, especially in the archival footage, but there's nothing here that would make viewing anything but pleasurable. The aspect ratio is 1.85:1.

A Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround soundtrack in English, Italian, or French is adequate but less impressive than the video. When we get musical interludes the mix sounds more full of life, but often the dialogue seems a little flat-sounding. Then again, this is guerilla filmmaking, with a hand-held camera trailing the subjects. It wasn't filmed on a soundstage.

If you're fascinated by the haute couture life, you'll like the 30-minute tour we get of Valentino's six houses and the kinds of parties he has, with manager Michael Kelly presiding. It's a very fun and very cool behind-the-scenes look at the high life.

Two other bonus features run just over eight minutes each. "A Red Dress" doesn't offer insight into the signature Valentino garment, but rather traces the development that each design goes through from start to finish. And "The Last Collection" shows basically an alternate ending, since it shows Valentino in 2008 mounting his last show. Rounding out the bonus features is a theatrical trailer.

Bottom Line:
If you like "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," you'll like this film about fashion icon Valentino. But it's an absorbing, fly-on-the-wall documentary regardless.


Film Value