Valentino: The Last Emperor (Unrated) ***

By Marta Barber, The Miami Herald

Party to party, French chateau to Roman villa, apartment in the Alps to the runways of Paris, the life of Valentino Garavini has been a movable feast. This grand man of fashion is known by only his first name, and he has dressed some of the most famous names in society and show business (he was one of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ pet designers). By 2007 he had turned 75, and his label had been bought by a large conglomerate, and his ubiquitous V was showing up on belts, bags and other easily copied accessories in ways that made this short, wiry and charismatic man furious.

Director Matt Tyrnauer follows the designer for two years in this entertaining documentary, which brings a truly human element to a business so incomprehensible to most people. Together with Giancarlo Giammetti, his business-and-life partner of 45 years, and his five pugs, Valentino lives a life of luxury and elegance tinged with decadence. His couture clothes are made stitch by stitch — please, no sewing machines! — and his seamstresses wear white while they handle the exquisite fabrics.

Creative temperament sometimes flares, as when Valentino begs the cameraman to stop filming, a glimpse into the passion and stubbornness that rule this diminutive man who barely reaches the bust-line of most of his models. Small, yes — but not in his eyes.

Thankfully, Tyrnauer doesn’t turn the documentary into a gossipy exposure of what happens behind closed doors in the life of a famous man. The film is all about design and the tensions and exuberance that rule the presentation of gorgeous clothes.

We see a celebration — 45 years in the business — prepared amid the ruins of the Roman Forum’s Temple of Venus and the glass-enclosed Ara Pacis. The little we see of the spectacle is glorious. Among the invited guests are Sarah Jessica Parker and Julia Roberts. Only one fellow designer is present: Karl Lagerfeld, the German designer settled in Paris. ”Only you and I are left,” quips Lagerfeld. “The rest is crap.”

When Valentino receives the French Legion of Honor medal, emotions flow. Giammetti admits that after 45 years together — ”We’ve been separate at the most two months” — Valentino has never showed his gratitude to the man many believe made Valentino the designer. Then come the fireworks of the grand finale. Both are touching moments.

Tyrnauer succeeds in making a documentary in which man and his creations are one and the same. Yes, Valentino lives in opulence, but his gowns exist in that stratosphere too.

Valentino retired in 2007. His empire had changed hands several times, and he is no longer the owner of V or his designs. That’s the way of today’s business. Tyrnauer’s film reminds us to say: Long live the emperor!

Director/screenwriter: Matt Tyrnauer.

Producer: Matt Kapp.

A Vitagraph Films and Truly Indie release. Running time: 96 minutes. Brief nudity. In English, French and Italian with English subtitles. Playing in Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Broward: Gateway.


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