Ah, it’s good to be king.
Becoming a legend in women’s fashion has given Valentino Gararvani a godlike status that leaves him untouchable by the public eye and grants him the highest authority in fashion.
Early on in Valentino: The Last Emperor—the documentary product of director Matt Tyrnauer’s video camera following Valentino for two years—a woman asks him what he believes women want. “They want to be beautiful,” the old man says with a grin and a touch of Hugh Hefner sleaziness.
It’s hard to ignore the parts of Valentino that are tools for promoting idealized and conformist perceptions of women. The glitter and glamour of fashion always hide something dark in our culture. As fully nude models in the film dress, their skeletal forms force an audience critique on conventional beauty. Is this what the public finds attractive? Such questions have been cliché since the ’60s. But it’s become too easy to attack our TVs and our pop singers and our Barbie dolls for the unrealistic images they present to the next generation. Hmmm…have elitist fashion designers played a role?
No judgement is cast, however, and the amorality becomes tolerable after a while. Tyrnauer, in following Valentino and his pugs, does not focus on social commentary or repercussions. He shows the man himself. This he does quite well, from the fabulous pin-striped suits to the nearly childish tantrums and insecurities. Valentino and his dogs take center stage in flashy fashion shows, chaotic dressing rooms and the madness of the seamstresses’ creative process.
Right off the bat, though there’s a genuine glimpse into the pop icon’s personality, the lobby cards are right; this film will probably only appeal to designer clothing fans. And maybe pug fans.
That does not mean others will be disappointed. If nothing else, it seems likely outsiders will be more apt to see the holes in the naive elitist presentation while still enjoying the characters on-screen. The characters—er, real-life subjects—are good, actually. These fashion guys, while clearly capable of expressing anger, which they hide from the camera (perhaps a product of years of needing to keep up a serene facade for paparazzi), are nice guys. Most might imagine Valentino as a tyrannical perfectionist, waving his arms around and throwing out classic Italian gestures and exasperated sighs, maybe even slapping a few people. He does seem to have a touch of that, but he emerges as a mostly charming man who appreciates beauty. Provided it fits his standards. This certainly gets annoying for his much beat-upon lifelong friend and partner Giancarlo Giammetti, who calls the old man out but still holds him in esteem.
The Emperor sits on his throne throughout the film as anorexic women approach him from dressing rooms adorned in his flashy, sometimes ridiculous dresses. The pissed-off elder seamstress watches, hoping he likes it. If he doesn’t, sure, he’ll pout for a second, but he pulls through in the end.