Vanity Fair writer/editor Matt Tyrnauer’s Valentino: The Last Emperor could easily be called a documentary that Federico Fellini might have made. The problem with that is when Fellini did occasionally turn his hand to something that could be called documentaries, they weren’t anything like this. How could they be? Fellini inserted himself—or his image of himself—into his documentaries. Tyrnauer, however, stays utterly out of his film. What he ends up with is a surprisingly entertaining documentary that might be said to be “in the style of what he imagines a Fellini documentary on the subject might be.”
As if to prove this, his film is loaded with Nino Rota music from Fellini films and references to—even clips from—Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). He has, in fact, inserted Fellini into his film. And why not? Fashion designer Valentino Garavani emerged on the world’s fashion scene at about the same time that Fellini became the sort of filmmaker we remember him as. Moreover, both Fellini and Valentino are spiritual brothers as fantasists—only the medium differs. The biggest difference is that while Fellini put himself into his art, Valentino puts his art into himself. He actually lives “la dolce vita.”
The film’s entertaining results are blessed with just happening to take place at a time when the professional life of the 77-year-old designer is coming to an end, giving the documentary both its drama and that inevitable resonance that comes from any end-of-an-era story. The events give the film its shape and its story—as well as an unbeatable climax in the form of a huge tribute to Valentino’s 45 years as a fashion designer, a spectacle worthy of Valentino (or Fellini, come to that). You don’t need to know or care about haute couture to be bowled over by this, but not knowing or caring may well increase a sense of wonder at both the beauty of it all and the superficiality of this world. (In this regard, the film slightly suggests Robert Altman’s massively undervalued Prêt-à-Porter from 1994.)
What keeps the film itself—and Valentino—from being utterly superficial is that it’s also—and most importantly—a love story. Beneath and behind every aspect of the film is the 45-year relationship of Valentino and his partner—in business as well as life—Giancarlo Giammatti. It’s not an entirely happy story, since time and again Giammatti is shown to be not only living in Valentino’s shadow, but often casually brushed aside. At one point, Giammatti is even asked to sum up in a word what it’s like to live in another man’s shadow, and he answers, “Happiness.” It feels like a cover, but is it? The film never says, but the fact that the applause invariably increases whenever Valentino evidences any affection toward his partner suggests that their world perceives Giammatti as too-often taken for granted. At the same time, the movie boasts an emotional high point—also to much applause—that indicates that maybe Valentino’s apparent indifference is a calculated pose.
Some aspects of Valentino are a little too precious, to be sure. There’s way too much cute footage of the designer’s pack of pugs (probably because they’re antics are suited to Rota’s music), and while much of the “bitchy old queen” comedy is funny, it also becomes a little caricatural and facile. But this is pointless carping when all is said and done, since what we’re left with is a touching love story, an outsized spectacle and a glorious bit of color in an often all too drab world. That’s pretty impressive. Rated PG-13 for some nudity and language.