Friday, July 03, 2009

The Emperor With Lots of Clothes

Just got back from watching Matt Tyrnauer's fascinating Valentino: The Last Emperor -- one of those rare documentaries which not only put this viewer in the thick of a world he knows absolutely nothing about, but also reminds him that he still buys his pants at Kohl's.

The world is haute couture, and the man at its center is the fashion designer Valentino Garavani, who has reigned supreme for the last three decades, the go-to man for everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Audrey Hepburn to Jackie O to Princess Diana to Sophia Loren to Fill in Famous Leading Lady Here. The film follows him in the year leading up to his retirement, at 70, when after 45 years the business he has created has become bigger than he is, which is saying a lot.

What a life: Valentino lives like a pasha, surrounded by sucker-uppers, fans, and yards and yards of extraordinary cloth. He has five pugs who accompany him everywhere and take up two seats on a private jet. It's a rich and fascinating world, as well as a sterile and abstract one. It's the glamorous jet set life that both attracted and repulsed Fellini in La Dolce Vita (which came out just as Valentino's career was getting off the ground.) It's all about beauty, about a man whose dream in life is to make beautiful clothes for beautiful women, but beauty in the purely aesthetic sense, where a gorgeous naked model is regarded as little more a breathing mannequin.

As a designer, Valentino is presented as an impassioned but also prickly and extremely demanding artist, a man for whom every detail is vital and who lets nothing stand in the way of his vision -- a fact the people around him adhere to unstintingly. It's Valentino's world; they just sew, stitch, make phone calls, make and break plans, and brush the teeth of his dogs in it.

Of no one is this more true than Giancarlo Giametti, Valentino's companion, business manager, and top assistant for the last 45 years, with whom he has forged an indelible relationship that reminded me of Mr. Burns and Smithers on "The Simpsons." If Valentino wants it, Giancarlo makes sure he gets it; he's a fulltime willing slave to Valentino, a fact he basically admits, but he is also the only person who really knows his moods, and how to deal with them. It's as if he is his other half: the left brain, business-minded, real world complement to a decidedly right-brained life. He completes him, to use a cliche. Giancarlo is the one who puts together a typically lavish (not to say gaudy) show to display Valentino's latest creations, a desert setting full of sand and pyramids. Virtually at the last minute, Valention tells him it's a bad idea; that the setting doesn't make sense, that it's stupid. Giancarlo placates the boss, and proceeds ahead anyway.

The show is fantastic and everyone is happy. One senses that there have been a lot of battles like this between these two, and that Giancarlo has served as a necessary buffer between a meticulous and easily bored genius and the world at large.

Despite all the above, I doubt anyone who sees this film will fail to like Valentino. He's often (though not always) easy-going, and he loves his life and his work: he has a genuine artistic enjoyment not only of creating something dazzlingly beautiful, but in dazzling others.

The greater world closes in on Valentino in the last third of the film, as the designer's business is taken over by first one major corporation and then another, ultimately leading to his willing retirement. Valentino says he wanted to leave while the party was still full, and Giancarlo makes sure he has the career-saluting party to end all parties, with a spectacular show at the Coliseum in Greece. There's a suggestion that it's a wise emperor who bows out before he is dethroned.

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