Film Review: Valentino: The Last Emperor

This splendidly eye-filling documentary about the last of the grand couturiers is as seductive and glamorous as high fashion itself.

Valentino: The Last Emperor, indeed! Has any real-life emperor led quite as lavish an existence as this last of the grand couturiers? Possibly, but Valentino Garavani’s many, extensive homes filled with priceless art, his private jets and yachts, ridiculously lavish parties and ubiquitous string of beloved pug dogs who travel with him everywhere make his lifestyle certainly nonpareil, especially in these dun-colored financial times.

“I only know how to make dresses. I am a disaster at anything else,” Valentino confesses at one point. Those dresses cost thousands of dollars and are completely hand-crafted from the finest materials available in the world. Famous women patrons from Jacqueline Onassis (who was married in a Valentino) to Julia Roberts (who won her Oscar wearing one) have only added to the cachet of his house. Valentino’s thriving half-century in fashion is a record, but it cannot be truthfully said that he will enter the history books as any kind of real style innovator, along the lines of Poiret, Vionnet, Chanel, Balenciaga or Rei Kawakubo.

The allure of Hollywood, exemplified by Adrian’s splashy gowns for the movie Ziegfeld Girl, remains, from childhood, a prime influence. (Indeed, that star-spangled movie has exerted an enormously far-reaching inspiration on other designers and artists, from Bob Mackie and Bill Blass to James Bidgood). Valentino’s evening gown designs are certainly Adrian-esque, in their love of beading, sequins, ruffles and other frou-frou eye-catchers. One dress, featured in the movie, says much about him—a white satin confection floats through the air as the model moves in the atelier, but a decision to weight its airy ruffles down with silver beads proves too much, even though the exact number of beads has provoked a summit dispute in his salon. Valentino’s is a highly conventional brand of glamour—classic silhouettes we’ve seen many times before, rendered with a luxury which makes them covetable by millionairesses.

The aforementioned dispute involves Valentino’s long-time lover and partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, and, if anything, Matt Tyrnauer’s enthralling, seductive film is a endearingly intimate portrait of their intense, devoted but often combative 24/7/365 relationship. Giammetti is a dream husband: handsome, charmingly earthy, incredibly tolerant and a business genius, who has financially kept the brand alive through the decades and made it a huge cash cow. Life with the myopically style-obsessed Valentino cannot be easy, as it would be with any imperious perfectionist, and, ironically, Giammetti emerges as the more interesting of the two men, especially as he maneuvers his lover toward retirement via the grandest fashion blowout in Rome ever conceived. We see the preparations for this affair, as well as Giammetti’s strained relations with the New Money men who have bought up much of his empire, and the film attains that heady excitement—frenzy, really—which epitomizes the gorgeous, venal, evanescent, bottom-line, high-low world of fashion itself.