Valentino: The Last Emperor

A reverent portrayal of a lover of beauty

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / April 17, 2009
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The Italian fashion designer Valentino has an aristocratic soul. He's the sort of man whose entourage includes a troupe of pugs that occupies an entire sofa on his private jet. But the Valentino Garavani to whom we receive prolonged exposure in Matt Tyrnauer's fascinating documentary "Valentino: The Last Emperor" is also a man of immense good taste. (It's here that you're encouraged to see beyond his tanned, leathery skin.) More than once he objects to the staging for one of his runway shows because it's wrong for his clothes. He abhors excess. He loathes tackiness. "I love beauty," he says. "It's not my fault."

The film immerses us in about a year of Valentino's life, the last that he served as designer for his clothing empire. What begins as a frothy bit of observation expands into a fly-on-the-wall portrait of an icon and how the fashion business has changed beneath his feet. It becomes a lament for a man who seems to have no further place in a universe he helped create.

By the time Tyrnauer catches up with him, he's a still-vital 75-year-old. And like his contemporaries Oscar de la Renta and Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino still matters. He presides over fittings. He talks about ideas for dresses he needs to sketch. What we see of his last collections reveals a man bringing 45 years of design wisdom to bear on clothes. When he says, with "meaning of life" seriousness, that he knows what women want, the answer sounds obvious enough (it's beauty). But dress after dress, the old man delivers.

Sadly, in a climate of conglomeration and corporatization, gowns are not enough. Tension emerges between Valentino and the Valentino brand. His name becomes licensed for luxury even as his clothes continue to be sewn by a collection of women in Rome. International he can do. Global, however, is another matter.

His life partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, who also runs the business, is most aggrieved by these developments. The film shows you why. The pressure to grow the brand is wearing on everyone. The company's head seamstress, Antoinetta de Angelis, has the temperament of a headmistress, berating one of her crew then charging through the corridors with a dress for a fitting. A few scenes later, there's a lovely rhyming image of a model racing around backstage in the same dress.

When Giammetti tells Valentino what he's thinking for an upcoming show (desert sands), Valentino objects, insultingly (they speak a mix of French and Italian to each other). Giammetti cuts him off: "Your belly is showing." Valentino responds: "Look at you. You're wearing three layers!"

Tyrnauer also writes flattering profiles for Vanity Fair (when it comes to celebrities in that magazine, there are no other kind). But he puts his seemingly limitless access to rich filmmaking ends. The interviews with Giammetti are candid. Valentino shows us elegant, he shows us ugly. Through it all, we have a deeper understanding of a man who for so many years seemed to be another fashion caricature.

His friend Lagerfeld arrives once or twice, and having seen a documentary about him, I still have no sense of what makes that vampire tick. In "The Last Emperor," we understand Valentino's affinity for gorgeousness enough for our hearts to break in the presence of unflattering design. Take his 2007 retrospective in Rome. It was a horrendously curated show that put Valentino's dresses out of the eye's reach. Walking around the museum with Lagerfeld on his arm, he seems to know it.

Tyrnauer's reverence prevents easy mockery, but he and film editors Bob Eisenhardt and Frédéric Tcheng aren't blind to the comedy afoot. It's everywhere. At one point, Valentino and Giammetti reminisce about Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" and how much that glamorous era in Roman pop culture meant to them.

But the Fellini movie is what their lives have become. Anna Wintour, Joan Collins, Michael Caine, Gwyneth Paltrow, and André Leon Talley arrive for a banquet at one of their mansions. Valentino affectingly accepts the French Legion of Honor. A daffy acquaintance, stuffed into one of Valentino's dresses, chases the designer around. And during his final runway show, women hoisted in mid-air drop flowers from wires outside the Colosseum, which has been lit with deep-scarlet light.

The decadence is obvious. But true to the Valentino prerogative, it's beautiful - sad, too: a dream life moving into the unknown.

VALENTINO: The Last Emperor Directed by: Matt Tyrnauer

At: Coolidge Corner

Running time: 96 minutes

In English, and in French and Italian, with subtitles