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A story of friendship, a retrospective, and a look at haute couture as business: we watch Valentino Garavani (1932- ) and partner Giancarlo Giammetti from preparation for the 2006 Spring/Summer Collection in Paris to a July 2007 retrospective of Valentino's 45-year career, which included dressing Jacqueline Kennedy. The film documents a year of work, shows, business changes, and decisions. We follow a creation from sketch to runway: he's always in pursuit of beauty. We're in Paris, Rome, and Venice. He receives the French Legion of Honor medal; his acceptance speech brings tears. Reporters ask when he'll retire. Is the Roman retrospective his career's finale? Cue Puccini. Written by
As told to Elvis Mitchell on KCRW's The Treatment (May 6, 2009), Director Matt Tyrnauer recounted that the film almost never made it to a commercial release. Both Giancarlo and Valentino hated the film on first viewing during a private screening in London and "were completely in shock". Although Tyrnauer had final cut, it took him over five months of negotiations before finally showing the film at the Venice film festival. At Venice the entire audience stood and gave a standing ovation to Valentino after the screening and Valentino apparently now loves the film. See more »
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The super luxury brands are dead. Long live the new Emperor!
Director Matt Tyrnauer never could have known when making his new documentary "Valentino: The Last Emperor" that he'd first chronicle the demise of fashion's last true self-made couturier and then release it into a world where, as former Valentino Fashion Group president Matteo Marzotto (and the film's antagonist) recently declared flatly, "luxury is over." Resisting the reality-genre conventions a 21st Century first-timer might be tempted to devolve into in shaping events to fit a narrative arc, Tyrnauer simply lifts the curtain on Valentino's gorgeous, frantic, fragile universe and watches it collapse; a dying star, shining brightest as it implodes.
What began as an outgrowth of a feature story written by Tyrnauer at Vanity Fair, where he is Special Correspondent, "Valentino: The Last Emperor" vaults over similar documentary efforts that fell back on partial scripting (Madonna's 1991 "Truth or Dare") or the discomfiting exploitation of a soon-to-fail relationship (the 1995 Isaac Mizrahi doc "Unzipped," directed by Mizrahi's unseen/all-seeing boyfriend Douglas Keeve). The reasons for this success stem directly from the trust placed in Tyrnauer, who as part of the 2004 Vanity Fair piece effectively managed what Valentino's own PRs certainly could not: the news -- subsequently splashed across European broadsheets -- that Valentino and Giancarlo Giammetti, Valentino's multi-role partner, were gay and had been lovers for 12 years as part of their decades-long relationship.
Five years later, while Italian homosexuality remains a specifically complicated knot to unravel, a paradigm shift has occurred. The presupposition that the men are gay, as are the majority of their peers and male colleagues, is a mute presence in the film, while the expressive energy of the men's post-sexual relationship drives the film and their careers equally.
Despite their bickering, their constant manipulations and mutual interferences, and the unceasing Italianness of their relationship (in one priceless moment, Giammetti stops Valentino cold in the middle of berating his partner's design choices by telling him he has a belly), what makes the center of the film is their love of one another, their love of fighting one another, and their love of being slightly put-upon by the demands of the baroque splendor of their lives together; lives made together, for each other. Unable as part of their generation, as part of La Dolce Vita in the closet, unable to be the men they (or their families) might have wanted them to be, their passions manifested in the exquisite beauty of Valentino's oeuvre and the extensive wealth that Giammetti was able to amass for them from it. Enough beauty, wealth and fame on an international (Jackie, Uma, all of them in between) scale to live, as Giammetti astutely observes, "above."
Valentino is "above control, above partnership" and above, for most of his career, the closet. No wonder Valentino seems happy only when Tyrnauer shows him in the mountains in Gstaad, skiing -- above indeed -- informally dressed for once, alone and beckoning Giammetti to come to him from afar. Both men seem to know, semi-consciously, that separately neither man would have been able to achieve a tenth of what they've done as a couple. In what has rightly been termed their "love story," 1 + 1 = 1,000.
The film has had the bittersweet luck to have been present for the ascendancy of a new math, as European equity fund Permira makes successive hostile takeover plays for Valentino's eponymous house, a late-capitalism tsunami of Euros sweeping away Valentino and Giammetti on the eve of elaborate celebrations and the designer's swansong show. Profit margins through duty-free handbags and trading on Valentino's name are the only products of these harsh calculations, whose cold logic is revealed later to show no mercy to the mercenaries brought in to do Permira's bidding. Tyrnauer, whose deft cameraman is seemingly everywhere at once thanks to top-shelf editing, wryly shows how these backstage machinations among unspeakable grandeur serve to further compress the schedule and increase the opulence of Valentino's farewell and farewell collection. Here, the film spends as much time in the château with Joan Collins and the Comtesse de Ribes as it does tender, thoughtful time with the house's incredible team of harried and largely unsung seamstresses. Hand-stitching be damned, the new regime looms, and Valentino's house, the last of its kind, will soon float away like the ironically apt motif of the hot air balloon chosen for the final season. It rises, lingers beautifully, and inevitably floats out of reach. As Giammetti says in closing the celebration and the film, "It was beautiful." He says more than he'll ever know.
As multiple fashion luminaries comment throughout the film, the end of Valentino is the end of couture. (Lagerfeld and Armani seem to be out of competition, and aren't couturiers per se.) The current economic turmoil and the underlying social upheaval it implies have sealed present-day couture's fate for good. Conspicious consumption and the chicanery that funds it is done for a generation or more. Italy's crown jewel industry is in tatters, waiting for government handouts; multiple fashion houses are ruined. Permira's wager on raping the name that Valentino and Giammetti built over 50 years has been called in at the sum of hundreds of millions of Euros when it recently wrote down much of the value of Valentino Fashion Group. We'll go back -- hopefully -- to a time when fashion becomes a meritocracy again and conglomerate oligarchs have no place in whatever remains of haute couture. Valentino and Giammetti have left the party with one final, masterful flourish; Tyrnauer begins a new career having been there to capture its glory. It was beautiful.
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