There are special moments in the documentary, "Valentino: The Last Emperor," where it feels like the viewer is inside the room, peeking into this fashion kingdom with a frightening intimacy. Then there's the rest of the picture, which comes across like a glorified "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" episode. I suppose work and play are what Valentino Garavani's reality is centered around, though for one of the most influential designers in the history of fashion, the line can be easily blurred.
"Emperor" brings the viewer to 2007, the year that Valentino was forced to contemplate the end of his career and possible permanent step away from the fashion world. Directed by Matt Tyrnauer, the documentary covers the anxious time leading up to 45th Anniversary Couture Collection, an assembly of classic Valentino outfits meant to celebrate his enormous achievement in the industry, but ended up a possible, and quite impressive, swan song to a world he gave his life to. "Emperor" aims to squeeze the vulnerability of the moment, and how Valentino went from royalty to a powerless billboard trapped within the unforgiving business cycle, carrying a legacy on his shoulders that he felt was too much to bear.
Allowed access into Valentino's workplace and domestic life, Tyrnauer captures the creator in his proper element, gearing up for a crucial fashion show in Rome, surrounded by his staff and lover/business partner, Giancarlo. The basics are tended to: the designing of impossibly beautiful gowns, the creative process to help refine the outfits to their finished state, and the excitable work of the dressmakers. Actually, these needle-wielding ladies are the highlight of the film -- tempestuous Italian women with short fuses and little in the way of personal restraint when it comes to verbal humiliation. Of course, they learn from the best, as "Emperor" is not afraid to show Valentino in tantrum mode, flustered with his staff and the documentary invasion. Give a man 45 years of people catering to his every need, and this will happen.
The core of "Emperor" is found in the relationship between Valentino and Giancarlo, who act more like brothers than lovers, finding their bond strengthened over the decades as Valentino expanded his empire, needing an inside man to stay focused on business matters. The gentlemen bicker, with Valentino clearly in the dominant role, but their love and mutual admiration shines through the stress and emotional tides. In many ways, Giancarlo appears to be the reason Valentino grew into such a giant, providing the necessary encouragement and trust required to achieve financial greatness.
The business side of fashion is Valentino's kryptonite, with his label passed through a few hands over the last two decades, making the designer almost a gimmick to his own company. Tension is introduced with a subplot concerning the arrival of potential buyers, further pinching the "Sun King" for a decision to either stay and work (facing further obsolescence) or enter retirement and bask in the glow of his achievements.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio), "Valentino" has the HD camera look for much of the running time, with slightly smeary images giving way to voluptuous colors (including the famous "Valentino Red") and stunning cityscapes. Black levels never swallow information, leaving the needed detail of fashion and globetrotting intact for a simple, but quite enjoyable visual experience.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix on this DVD is basic and flat, with little in the way of dimension, though it befits a documentary experience. Interviews and onscreen exchanges are easy to understand, with minimal interruptions and outside sound source interference. Soundtrack cuts fill out the viewing experience some, creating an evocative atmosphere during runway sequences.
English, Spanish, French, and Italian subtitles are offered.
"The Perfect Life: Around the World with Valentino" (30:03) makes more time for Michael Kelly, Valentino's jack-of-all-trades who watches over six houses and helps coordinate parties and gatherings. Taking the employee's perspective on how the Valentino machine runs, the sycophantic behavior grates immediately. However, this extended/deleted scene is a fresh eye-opener, further underlining the opulent lifestyle Valentino enjoys.
"The Last Collection" (8:29) captures Valentino in 2008, bringing his final collection to Paris. While further footage of backstage chaos and runway splendor, the emotional content here is high, chasing redundancy away.
"A Red Dress" (8:22) expands on the creative process, showing the development of a single red gown from design to fabric tweaking.
A Theatrical Trailer has been included.
Last month's Vogue/Anna Wintour documentary, "The September Issue," was a far more inviting take on how the business of fashion works, showing how young dreamers calcify into legends. "The Last Emperor" doesn't quite feature the same lasting appeal, but it does pull back the curtain on a traditionally withdrawn public figure. For that alone, the documentary is a fascinating glimpse into a mind that's always on the go, working within an industry that has perhaps lost sight of his regality.