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Film Review

Valentino: The Last Emperor

"I know what every woman wants: to feel beautiful." Even Freud wasn't sure, but Valentino Garavani knew, designed, and made women feel beautiful for more than 45 years. Matt Tyrnauer, editor and writer for Vanity Fair, has made a riveting documentary about the man and his empire, with a great deal of behind the scenes footage, often astonishing for its revelatory scenes. The film was shot in 2005 and 2006, and opens with Valentino's very successful season in Paris in 2006. The film maker has had what seems like nearly unlimited access. We see the dresses being built from raw fabric by Valentino's team of 60 (?) seamstresses, headed by formidable Antoinnette. There are amazing closeups of hand sewing, and a interesting story about the time they tried out a machine. The models are fitted, hair done, and begin their deliberately sullen walks down the runway, flanked by fashion writers, journalists, and many of his customers. At the end, Valentino comes out, does a short walk, a brief wave, a few kisses, and disappears. With a tight smile, he seems anxious and unhappy, his almost constant condition throughout the film.

Valentino has a partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, a partner in every sense of the word. They have been together for 50 years, and never apart for more than a few months during that entire period. Giancarlo, drop dead handsome with a shock of white hair, is the only person who can tell Valentino what he doesn't want to hear, such as his looking too tan. And he has a masterful business head as well. One of the current owners of the Valentino company says that Valentino would only be "a half, no, a third of what he is" without Giancarlo. The camera catches them bickering, but a few moments later the mood is calm. Occasionally Valentino orders the camera turned off, but sometimes filming continues. There is so much intimacy here, not just the relationship between the two men, but every aspect of the business. But it is Valentino that has the genius of design. We watch him do a brief sketch, then take fabric and begin to drape a nearly naked model, modifying his design as he goes. He is completely oblivious to the model's nakedness, focused only on the design. Even when the dress is finished, he continues to make changes. The dress is gorgeous, and these scenes bring us right into the act of creation.

Valentino is the emperor of haute couture, lives like royalty, with multiple homes, including a chateau outside Paris, a villa in Rome, a major yacht, a battalion of staff, and the adoration of many rich and important people. There is a wonderful scene of his six beloved pugs on his private jet, taking up several seats. This is a man, now a very fit 80, who for over 45 years, has clothed other royalty, from Jacqueline Kennedy to Princess Diana, and with many film stars and duchesses in between. But his career is coming to an end, and there is a takeover attempt to buy the company, currently owned by an Italian businessman, who himself is articulate and very interesting. There are fascinating opinions by fashion writers from the New York Times and Allure that offer real insight into the business. The film ends with a 45 year retrospective extravaganza planned for Rome. A great deal of footage is given to the planning, and finally the event. The Ara Pacis is turned into a museum of his dresses, and the Colosseum is backdrop to an amazing spectacle that includes flying dancers and fireworks. Few will forget these scenes.

This is a very complex film, with outstanding editing, never a slow moment, and beautifully filmed. Despite being a guy with a distinct fashion deficit, I loved this film, and found it mesmerizing. So many of the scenes are astonishing, and it celebrates and documents the genius of design. Valentino is truly an amazing and memorable film. The visual is so much of this film, so see it in a theater. Playing now at the Embarcadero.

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