Matt Tyrnauer’s “Valentino: The Last Emperor” – Documentary Review

“I love beauty. It’s not my fault.”

So goes the life credo and main creative impulse of Valentino, fashion designer extraordinaire and the subject of Matt Tyrnauer’s engrossing, eye-opening documentary “Valentino: The Last Emperor.” The film captures the final days of Valentino’s career as he decides to bow out of the fashion business rather than submit himself to a new corporate regime that will rob him of the creative control and artistic freedom that he had enjoyed for 45 years.

Tyrnauer had unprecedented access to the behind-the-scenes details of his celebrated shows, documenting the painstaking process that goes into all of Valentino’s creations. Valentino’s attention to the smallest detail, fold and sequin of his dresses is quite fascinating to watch. Valentino puts a premium on respecting the female form and making clothes that actual women can wear, rather than the faux avant-garde creations that infect fashion shows today.

While much attention is paid to the minutiae of creating Valentino’s dresses, as well as the opulent lifestyle that surrounds this work, the real heart of the film is the touching love story between Valentino and his life partner Giancarlo Giammetti. Giammetti is Valentino’s business partner and his creative director (he is responsible for the staging of runway shows), as well as his long-time lover. These roles are not separate from each other or in any conflict; rather, they all go hand in hand and are inextricable from each other. Giammetti is identified in the film as the person most responsible for making the Valentino the name that he is. That said, Giammetti has no interest in fame or being in the spotlight; in one scene, after Valentino’s triumphant retrospective show in Rome, a woman comes up to him, offering hearty bravos. Giammetti demurs, “Not me, not me.” He is content to be Valentino’s business and emotional support, and finds his life’s reward in that.

The film’s loveliest moment occurs when Valentino is receiving a Legion of Honor medal from the French government – this comes right after a scene in which Giammetti says that Valentino is not a very demonstrative person when it comes to expressing his feelings of love toward people. While giving his speech accepting the award, Valentino, his voice shaking with tears, gives a very heartfelt expression of gratitude to Giammetti, acknowledging the enormous debt he owes to him for his great success.

Tyrnauer’s film persuasively argues that Valentino is not simply a fashion designer or a dressmaker; he is a true artist, and one of the very few left in the fashion world. And while we see Valentino in the film contemplating retiring, or at least slowing down enough to actually enjoy the fruits of his labor, the film makes clear that he was effectively forced out of the business by a changing fashion industry that cares only about profits and not about creativity.

Tyrnauer’s film recently screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, with Valentino, Giammetti and the director in attendance. Valentino eloquently spoke to the changes in the fashion industry at the Q&A following the screening; in his words, “You cannot create intellectual dresses.” All his fashions had one objective: to make the women wearing them look and feel as beautiful as possible. Valentino clearly feels that most fashion designers today have lost sight of this goal, and do not honor the female form. So while Valentino may no longer be a presence on the runways of Milan and Paris, somehow I suspect that this isn’t the last we’ll hear from Mr. Valentino Garavani, or for that matter Mr. Giancarlo Giammetti. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

“Valentino: The Last Emperor” is one of 15 documentaries still in the running for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature; the final nominations will be announced Feb. 2, 2010. It is also available now on DVD and Blu-ray. To purchase it, visit the film’s Web site at

Videos: “Valentino” Q&A at the Museum of Modern Art, Nov. 5, 2009

Part I:

Part II: