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“I love beauty—it’s not my fault,” the perpetually orange, shellacked septuagenarian Valentino sniffs to reporters backstage at his spring prêt-à-porter show in February 2007. Filming the last year of the designer’s reign—Valentino retired in September 2007 after 45 years in haute couture—dedicated follower of fashion Matt Tyrnauer crafts the slick, superficial portrait that you might expect from a Vanity Fair special correspondent. Structured to make us boo the evil corporations that took over the House of Valentino while fetishistically documenting the details of the designer’s three-day swan-song extravaganza in Rome, Valentino is an orgy of châteaus, villas, yachts, majordomos, and Joan Collinses set to a Nino Rota score.
Then again, perhaps the director really does believe nothing succeeds like excess. Compared with recent docs on two other design legends, Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, that have also played at Film Forum, Tyrnauer’s extols Valentino’s extreme lavishness as a kind of honorable, defiant stance (sneaking away to Gstaad as investment bankers take over his company), but demurs from searching for its subject’s gravitas. David Teboul’s simple, trancelike Yves Saint Laurent: 5, Avenue Marceau, 75116 Paris (2002) captures the unwell YSL at his atelier in his last season, mostly shot from the back, blessing the patterns before him with a “Ravissant!” Though the title is misleading, Rodolphe Marconi’s Lagerfeld Confidential (2007) spotlights a Warholian space alien (who appears in Valentino) prone to droll aperçus and pronouncements like, “I am attached to nothing.” Tyrnauer, by contrast, goes for cutesy laughs, frequently cutting to Valentino’s six pugs, on board their master’s private jet, having their teeth brushed, peeing during a photo shoot, or being adorned with diamond earrings.
To give a sense of the man who credits Ziegfeld Girl for making him decide “to create clothes for ladies” and who became famous for his signature hue, “Valentino red,” dressing Jackie Kennedy in the ’60s, and designing the black-and-white number that Julia Roberts wore to the Erin Brockovich Oscars, Tyrnauer includes several moments of pique that often play like manufactured crises. “People have to be on their knees in front of me!” the emperor snorts, which is later followed by, “I don’t want to be filmed! OK? Bye-bye!” during a conversation with Giancarlo Giammetti, his partner in business and life. Order is quickly restored, Valentino takes his last stroll down the runway as Anne Hathaway cheers from the front row, and André Leon Talley squeals, “Triumph of the will! It’s triumph of the will!” backstage. Maybe—but not as dramatic as Diana Ross’s ego-trip freakout at the end of Mahogany.