Matt Tyrnauer's insightful, gossipy documentary about the twilight of one of the last great couturiers, Valentino Garavini, "Valentino: The Last Emperor", could be the flip side of "Eleven Minutes," the story of Jay McCarroll's first attempt at New York Fashion Week. Where McCarroll has to scrounge, scrape and beg for the money to put together his collection, Valentino is so unimaginably wealthy that at times it seems almost obscene. (And this from a woman who herself owns more than a few Valentino originals.)
Valentino owns a 17th century chateau outside of Paris, a villa in Rome, a ski retreat in Switzerland, a town house in London and an apartment in Manhattan. Not to mention a private jet and a yacht, all of which he shares with six adorable pug dogs and his lifelong companion (and business partner) Giancarlo Giametti. It is entirely possible that Valentino would not be Valentino without Giametti, a practical businessman who seems not to mind being in the background. (Giametti also prefers a more natural looking skin color than the designer, who resembles an oiled coffee bean for much of the film.)
Tyrnauer, a writer for Vanity Fair, and his cinematographer, Tom Hurwitz, were granted access from 2005 through 2007 to every aspect of the designer's life and to those around him. It is a pivotal moment, not only for the designer but for the fashion industry. As multimillion dollar corporations swallow up Valentino's company, they also make his amazing skills oddly obsolete.
We not only see Valentino working through his creative process (where every dress is hand-stitched by a team of perpetually exhausted seamstresses) but also the luxurious side of his life, throwing parties attended by the likes of Michael Caine, Gwyneth Paltrow, Elton John, Elizabeth Hurley, Anne Hathaway and others.
We also see the literally hundreds of people it takes to keep the Valentino machine running, whether it be his major domo in London or the set designer and workers who help put together the spectacular, excessive 45th anniversary celebration of Valentino's career that provides the climax for the film.
(Karl Lagerfeld, looking like a cross between an extra from Night of the Living Dead and a strange 1960s porno film, quietly tells Valentino: "There's only us. All of the others just make rags.")
Valentino seems strangely removed from those around him; he only once touches one of his pug dogs. His relationship with Giametti seems equally distant, at least on Valentino's side. My dear, dear friend Andre Leon Talley livens up every scene he appears in.
To moi, the gowns, the lavish, beautiful gowns, eventually begin to seem almost much of a muchness. I even found myself nursing the traitorous thought that perhaps Valentino had run out of creative steam. It seems that I was not the only one.
Valentino has dressed Jackie Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Margaret, and apparently every famous woman of the last four-plus decades. At the end of the film, we are informed at Valentino has retired. Despite a faint feeling of sadness, one feels that the time has come.
Elisa & Bucky the Wonderdog (who gets cuddled on a very regular basis!)