Valentino: The Last EmperorReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/27/09 15:00:00
For the most part, I have always maintained the same attitude towards the fashion industry that I have for the pornographic film industry--I have virtually no interest in the final product (I hate shopping, my personal sartorial tastes have remained essentially unchanged over the last couple of decades--if it is black and fits, I’ll take it--and I would rather jam my extremities in a blender than watch something like the Oscar pre-show) but I have always had a certain curiosity about how such things are created and presented in the first place. As a result, when I went into the screening of “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” a new documentary about the legendary designer, I was hoping to get some kind of insight into both the creative processes of a person of his stature in the industry and the work that goes into producing both the actual clothing and the elaborate extravaganzas where the creations are debuted before fashionista with the power to destroy an entire collection with just a few arch words. Alas, the film itself turns out to be a draggy commercial for Valentino, both the man and the clothing line, that is as exciting as clothing bought off the rack at K-Mart and less informative than the weakest episode of “Project Runway.”Culled from approximately 250 hours of footage shot between 2005 and 2007, a period of time in which rumors of Valentino’s retirement from the world of haute couture were growing more and more prevalent throughout the fashion industry, the film takes us on a tour of his life and work via three different viewpoints. In one, we get a sketchy-at-best look at how he went from being an adolescent boy whose obsession with American movies--or at least the glamorous women who populated them--helped to inspire a career that would eventually make him an international icon in the 1960’s when he began designing dresses for Jacqueline Kennedy. In another, we learn about his long (nearly 50 years strong) relationship with lover/business partner Giancarlo Giammetti, the man who took Valentino’s business interests and transformed them into an empire worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Finally, we get glimpses of Valentino at work as he prepares for what would serve as his twin swan songs--a final couture show featuring a desert theme and an impossibly opulent 45th anniversary retrospective/farewell celebration in Paris featuring big-name stars, classic dresses from past collections and red gown-clad ballerinas flying in the air overlooking the Coliseum.
Of course, Valentino is not the first fashion designer to become the subject of a documentary--there have been similar films following Giorgio Armani (“Made in Milan”), Yohji Yamamoto (“Notebooks on Cities and Clothes”) and Isaac Mizrahi (“Unzipped”). Like “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” those previous efforts were essentially hagiographies that positioned their subjects in the best possible light and never allowed a discouraging word or dissenting thought to find its way into the mix. The difference is that those earlier films either had the good taste to have excellent filmmakers at the helm (“Made in Milan” was done by Martin Scorsese while Wim Wenders directed “Notebooks on Cities and Clothes”) or the good luck, as in the case of Mizrahi and “Unzipped,” to focus on a central character who was so fascinating and compelling that you wanted to follow him around for 90-odd minutes. This film, on the other hand, marks the directorial debut of Matt Tyrnauer, an editor-at-large at “Vanity Fair,” and it largely plays like the kind of photo-heavy puff piece that the magazine occasionally runs on some famous businessperson in the hopes of perhaps getting some advertising from them in the future--everything is slick and glossy and essentially meaningless and potentially interesting material (such as a slowly unfolding corporate takeover of Valentino’s entire company, the same kind of move that ruined other once-great fashion houses over the years by having them run by people more interested in bottom lines than hemlines) is kicked to the side for endless footage of Valentino’s six pet pugs romping around (including a moment when he clips diamond earrings onto one of them, a bit that should go over really well with audiences these days). Then there is the inescapable fact that Valentino, while a brilliant artist in his particular field, is just not that interesting of a subject for a documentary--we learn virtually nothing about his creative process, what has kept him going for nearly a half-century or his views on what fashion means to him today. Instead, he just bounds from one fabulous location to another while looking and acting like an unholy blend of Chico Marx and Robert Evans.
Beyond that, Tyrnauer is just a remarkably uninventive filmmaker who seems hesitant to do anything that hasn’t been seen before in a dozen other documentaries. At one point, Valentino makes reference to his early days as a designer in Rome being like “La Dolce Vita” and sure enough, Tyrnauer offers up numerous clips from the movie instead of simply assuming that we get the reference and moving on. At another, we get one of those “controversial” moments when someone insists that the camera be turned off during a key moment and the cameraman only pretends to do so while still surreptitiously shooting--since the information contained in that moment is hardly earth-shattering (I can’t even remember what it was off the top of my head), all it does is call attention to itself as a bit designed to show that Tyrnauer is a real filmmaker and not just a lackey with a camera, even though I presume that there isn’t a frame of this film that wasn’t personally approved by Valentino himself. As for the big finale with the two fashion shows, Tyrnauer and his crew spend so much time trying to get footage of all the famous and beautiful people who turned up to pay homage to Valentino (including Anne Hathaway, Uma Thurman, Elizabeth Hurley and Karl Lagerfeld) that the shows and the fashions almost seem like an afterthought to them.As it turns out, those shows turned out to be Valentino’s last as he chose to retire from the industry a few months later. From a series of end title cards, we discover that his departure led to a number of surprising moves that had significant repercussions for both the company and the fashion industry at large. Later on, when I returned home after the screening, I came upon an item in a gossip column that suggested that he was actually responsible for some of the new designs recently unveiled by the fashion house that still bears his name. Strangely enough, all of this information is infinitely more interesting than anything else on display in “Valentino: The Last Emperor.” Maybe some day, a real documentary filmmaker will come along and use it as the basis for a film that is actually more interested in exploring the ins and outs of the fashion industry than in offering up little more than a bland infomercial.
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