Not a biography of actor Rudolph, but a portrait of Valentino Garavani, a well-known designer of haute couture in the months preceding a huge celebration in honor of his forty-fifth anniversary in the business (and as it turned out, his imminent retirement). Matt Tyrnauer’s film has some interesting “plot” aspects—especially the relationship between Garavani and his long-time partner and companion Giancarlo Giammetti, and the machinations surrounding the corporate takeover of his firm that led him to give up his vocation. But most of it is devoted to a splashy overview of Valentino’s lifestyle and perfectionist working methods, a portrait that paints him as an obsessive clearly accustomed to having everyone fawn over him and his every whim and directive being instantly obeyed. The result is that “Valentino: The Last Emperor” is rather like one of its subject’s creations: lovely to look at, perhaps, but in the end there’s not much to it behind the surface glamour.
The good part of the film is that Tyrnauer shows his subject’s hauteur without minimizing it, and also depicts his thoughtlessly dismissive treatment of others, as well as Valentino’s summary dismissal of the camera when he feels a situation is getting too tense for comfort. (It’s considered almost a triumph over his nature when, during his induction into the Legion of Honor, he remembers to give gracious thanks to Giammetti, though one gets the impression that it’s just another case of his stage-managing everything.) It’s also amusing to watch his chief seamstress, a feisty, poison-tongued old lady named Antonietta, berating her staff as she checks their work. She’s as much a martinet as Valentino is, though at a much more mundane level, and at some points you might feel like slapping them both.
Insofar as all that is concerned, the level of your interest will depend on how seriously you take the business of high fashion itself. If you consider it a form of artistic expression, you’ll be happy to set aside any concerns about the ostentation of the slice of society depicted here and simply revel in the utter excess that Valentino so flamboyantly represents. (The treatment accorded his dogs and the sycophants and adoring fans who surround him are proof that’s he’s living in the celebrity bubble.) On the other hand, if you consider such spare-no-expense clothing for the ultra-rich the perfect symbol of the sort of gross extravagance that justifies revolution, as it once did in France, you might look upon the fellow far less generously.
Whatever your opinion on that score, however, you’re likely to find the relationship between him and Giammetti intriguing and often touching. They squabble like an old married couple but inevitably make up, and signs of tenderness soon follow their dustups. Their recollections also serve, along with archival footage and stills (some involving Jackie Kennedy and European royalty, for you gossip hounds out there), to provide background to Tyrnauer’s treatment, which, after all, catches Valentino not in medias res but in the winter of his career. And the machinations surrounding the changes in ownership of the House of Valentino—involving young investor Matteo Marzotto, whom Giammetti dismisses in one of his more sour remarks—are intriguing as a window into the transformation of the industry from something quite personal to something far more corporate. They’re not investigated with any thoroughness, though, so what one’s left with is more tantalizing suggestion than serious analysis.
“The Last Emperor” is shot with finesse and edited with verve, coming out looking like one of Valentino’s creations—elegant and eye-catching. And the music is great—how could it not be, coming as it does from Nino Rota’s scores for Fellini? One only wishes that the tone of Tyrnauer’s work treated Valentino’s world more in the spirit of “Satyricon” than “8½.”