Now is not the time to venerate kings. As the global economy crumbles, the documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor arrives malapropos to celebrate affluence and excess. The movies have historically offered recession audiences a glimpse of how the better-off half lives, but this film serves less as Astaire-Rogers-style escapism than as an object of outrage, bound to generate more socialists than new devotees of Italian stitching. At the time of filming, from 2005 to 2007, Valentino Garavani, known to the world by his first name alone, was arguably the last of the classic haute couture fashion designers. (He has since retired.)
The movie, Vanity Fair editor-at-large Matt Tyrnauer's directorial debut, chronicles roughly a year in Valentino's life, culminating in a 45th-anniversary extravaganza. Tyrnauer introduces the designer as a Fellini character (the Nino Rota-heavy score intentionally evokes 8½), but the film soon reveals that Valentino sorely lacks Mastroianni's Dolce Vita cool: He's little more than a septuagenarian brat, prone to hissy fits and temper tantrums over sequins and strips of fabric (“People should have to be on their knees in front of me,” he says during one outburst). Granted, we often afford artists some leeway when it comes to appropriate behavior, and high fashion dressmaking is surely an art form—though one rooted in self-indulgency and mad discrepancies of wealth. Given what's happening outside Valentino's hermetic social sphere, such excess has become passé; when he clips earrings to one of his pet pugs (one of six named in the credits), it's at first funny but soon offensive. Dogs in diamonds? While we're all losing our jobs?
In short, Tyrnauer could stand to curb his admiring and rueful tone, nostalgic for the profligate glamour of yesteryear. But it's just as bad that he bungles attempts to explore the story's tangential corners, like the vicissitudes of the fashion world, the machinations of corporate maneuvering, and the bickersome though enduring relationship between Valentino and his life- and business-partner, Giancarlo Giametti. Respectively, these strands are dull, confusing, and underdeveloped, leaving behind nothing but an infantile rascal playing dress-up with flesh-and-blood dolls. Tyrnauer never attracts apathetic audiences into the world of fashion (even though he's sure to include many bare-breasted models); he merely renders couture an immoral game played by odious cavilers. “Valentino is the last courtier,” his company's chairman says. Thank God—palaces and yachts rarely belong to less-deserving man-boys.