In The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep, standing in for Vogue editor Anna Wintour, icily explains how fashion designers' choices filter down through the retail system to the shapeless sweaters sold at Casual Corner. It's a useful moment. The speech makes the compelling case that the world of couture - of expensively dressed wraiths strutting down runways - has something to do with the rest of us.
No such moment exists in Valentino: The Last Emperor, an interesting documentary about the legendary Italian fashion designer Valentino Garavani. The world of Valentino is an airtight place. The only people there who aren't fashionistas are business moguls or movie stars. And at the center of Valentino's world is Valentino, who has a way of sweeping into workspaces and rendering devastating judgments as his underlings stand by, tensely silent.
Valentino shares portions of the designer's biography, especially his relationship with Giancarlo Giammetti, Valentino's business and life partner since the 1960s. (There's a lovely moment when the two stand on a Rome sidewalk and bicker about precisely what cafe was the site of their first meeting.) But most of the film deals with Valentino's preparations for a Paris showing of a summer collection and a retrospective in Rome of his 45-year career.
To watch Valentino at work is to marvel at the alchemy of haute couture. More sequins? Fewer sequins? The gowns all look stunning to me, but I am not equipped to say what makes one designer's frocks better than another's. Director Matt Tyrnauer's film doesn't bother explaining, which is a lost opportunity. The gowns are at the core of Valentino's reputation, of why he apparently deserves adulation, a documentary, a grand retrospective at Rome's Ara Pacis museum. But they are glimpsed only fleetingly, on mannequins and alarmingly thin models.
Instead Tyrnauer focuses tightly on Valentino himself, his complex, difficult personality, his absurdly lavish lifestyle. His home life shifts between a sumptuous French chateau, a slightly less sumptuous Italian villa and an enormous yacht. He throws glittering parties for the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Elton John. All the sumptuousness comes at a cost, of course, and running through the documentary is the tension between Valentino's ambitions and the bean counters who warily eye the bottom line. That's a tension that runs throughout the fashion world, as high-profile brands like Yves Saint Laurent are bought and sold.
The bridge between the flamboyant designer and the corporate types is Giammetti, a practical man who is plainly devoted to Valentino, and movingly so. "He will never tell you directly that he cares," Giammetti tells the camera at one moment, but Tyrnauer playfully undercuts the claim with a scene of Valentino accepting France's Légion d'honneur. At the end of his speech, a weeping, gasping Valentino thanks Giammetti, who smiles serenely. It's gratifying to see that amid all the wealth and sequins, Valentino is a man in love.