The fawning documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor is so enamored of its subject, legendary Italian fashion designer Valentino Garavani, that it almost loses sight of explaining why he’s so great in the first place. Director Matt Tyrnauer confines his film to the year leading up to Valentino’s extravagant 45th-anniversary show in 2007 (which also ended up signaling the designer’s retirement), and he has plenty of footage of Valentino dithering over dress designs and fabric choice, but precious little that provides insight or context. Woe is the viewer not already familiar with the fashion world, as the film offers at best a cursory glance at Valentino’s history and the career that made him an icon.
Tyrnauer does find an interesting angle in following Giancarlo Giammetti, Valentino’s longtime lover and business partner, who’s stood in the famous man’s shadow for four decades. But even that depiction is at best skin-deep, with interviews carefully calculated to reveal only the most basic of personal details. Whenever Valentino and Giammetti seem on the cusp of getting into a revealing conversation, the designer pushes Tyrnauer’s camera away. As the gala approaches, Valentino’s company is subject to a semi-hostile takeover that presages his retirement, but the implications of those business dealings are likewise left murky.
The Last Emperor is a portrait of a control freak, but Tyrnauer seems too bowled over by his subject to probe what makes him the way he is. In the end, the clothes look marvelous, and Valentino and Giammetti are charming, but the movie is all dressed up to go nowhere.