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Wednesday, September 23, 2009
  DVD Review: Valentino: The Last Emperor

It’s been said that the sign of a good documentary is that it can engage a viewer even if that viewer has no real interest in the subject matter. And to say I’m not really that interested in fashion is a pretty staggering understatement, particular to those who have seen me in person. So I can safely say that my enjoyment of Valentino: The Last Emperor suggests it’s a good documentary, because it had me totally engaged for its entire running time, and I don’t know couture from a coat rack.

The film follows the iconic designer known as Valentino during what would turn out to be his final months working in the business, with the latter part of the movie focusing on the planning of a massive celebration in Rome to commemorate
The man and his ladies his 40th anniversary in fashion. He’s been an icon in the industry for decades – the film does a nice little recap of his career, which started in Paris in the late ‘40s/early ‘50s – and one of the main themes, alluded to in the film’s subtitle, is that the industry has changed significantly since his early years. The idea that Valentino is the last remaining great designer of an era that will never be recreated is one director Matt Tyrnauer spends a lot of time on – possibly too much, as most other designers are essentially skimmed over, but then again, the movie is about Valentino, not fashion at large, so that’s hardly a serious knock against it – and by the end of the film I felt like I had something approaching a real understanding of Valentino’s importance to the fashion industry, and for a newbie like me, that says something.

One of the main reasons I enjoyed Valentino: The Last Emperor as much as I did was that Tyrnauer and his crew provide a glimpse into a world I know nothing about, and they managed to educate me about its subject (both Valentino in particular and fashion in general), without ever talking down to me. The film deals with the nuts and bolts of fashion in a way that’s engaging, and manages to establish Valentino’s significance without spending huge amounts of time on old file footage or expository interviews with people telling the camera what a big deal he is; you just sort of feel it. It’s one of the basic rules of storytelling: show, don’t tell, and it’s one Tyrnauer grasps.

The film also has enough peeks behind the curtain that I’m sure it’s insightful for ardent fashion followers. I mean, what’s not to like about watching the 70-something Valentino throw a hissy fit hours before a huge show? Stuff like that certainly makes for compelling viewing – especially when Valentino threatens to quit the film entirely if he’s not left alone, or, at another point, if the cameras don’t follow him exclusively – and The Last Emperor has plenty of moments like that.

But the aspect of the movie that resonated with me the most was probably the relationship between Valentino and Giancarlo Giammetti, the man who’s been his partner and companion for 50 years. It really forms the film’s emotio
Valentino and Giammetti hard at worknal backbone, and there’s some genuinely touching moments surrounding the two, who can seem like a bickering old married couple one moment and a pair of businesslike colleagues the next. There’s a chunk of the film where Giammetti actually seems like the primary subject, as nobody else has known Valentino as long, or as intimately, so Tyrnauer naturally relies on his insight quite often, and Giammetti himself comes across as the more level-headed, rational yin to Valentino’s more fiery, emotional yang. Valentino’s relationship with Giammetti is among the most emotionally involving as any I’ve seen in a documentary any time recently, to the point where I was almost disappointed when the focus shifted back towards Valentino and his anniversary celebration.

One final thing I need to mention is the fact that Valentino: The Last Emperor is a great-looking film, one of the better looking non-nature documentaries I’ve seen. Which is totally appropriate, given the subject matter, but everything, from the lush dresses on display to the streets of Rome, is gorgeously shot by Tyrnauer and cinematographer Tom Hurwitz.

Like I said, I’m about as ignorant of fashion as you can be without being openly mocked by strangers on the street (though I usually have my iPod on, so it’s actually fairly plausible that this is already happening and I just don’t realize it), but I thought Valentino: The Last Emperor was great. I can only imagine how much of a treat it is for fashion fans. If you’re into fashion, then see this movie as soon as humanly possible.



The DVD for Valentino: The Last Emperor isn’t packed with extras, but what’s there is interesting. There’s a 30-minute featurette called ‘The Perfect Life: Around the World with Valentino,’ which is essentially an extended collection of some existing parts of the movie, expanding on the behind-the-scenes footage of a huge, celebrity-filled party thrown at the designer’s massive Paris estate, as well as extra footage from a Swiss skiing trip and a longer version of a cute moment in the movie with the designer, his entourage and his five small dogs on a private jet.

There’s also a pair of shorter featurettes that also expand on bits in the film, one about a red dress Valentino’s seen sketching early in the film, and another about the big anniversary gala thrown at the end. Overall this is a very nice DVD for a great documentary.

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