'Valentino' offers opulence over substance

Short, majestically coiffed, with hooded eyes, an orange-tinted tan and the peevish impatience of an absolute monarch: that is Valentino Garavani, the Italian couturier known simply as Valentino, as he appears in Matt Tyrnauer's documentary portrait, "Valentino: The Last Emperor." Watching the movie is a little like gorging on chocolate and champagne until that queasy moment arrives when you realize you've consumed far too much.

Valentino, now 77, has created hundreds of beautiful gowns for the most glamorous women (most famously, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) since the 1960s. Born to do only this, he insists, he never had much aptitude for the business aspect of fashion or for anything else. As you observe him in his workshop supervising helpers who hand-stitch every sequin on every dress, you begin to appreciate his single-minded perfectionism in the service of a fantasy.

Asked to answer Freud's famous question, "What do women want?," he declares in oracular tones, "They want to be beautiful." As evidenced by the fantastic gowns he has created, he has fulfilled those wishes to the extent that clothing can confer beauty where there was none; many of these garments are exquisite works of art. They are also timeless in the sense that Valentino's opulent, royal ideal of feminine raiment has been largely untouched by trends.

This here-and-now portrait offers only the sketchiest biography. There is little personal background or analysis of his place in the history of fashion. We drop in on a couple of his many lavish palaces, visit his yacht and watch him and his business partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, as they board a private jet with six scampering pugs. But these are only glimpses of his notoriously imperial lifestyle.

The film focuses on his affectionate but testy relationship with Giammetti, whom he met at a café on the Via Veneto in Rome in 1960 (they disagree on exactly which café), became lovers, then business partners.

The last half of the movie is an elegy for the end of an era of haute couture as personified by Valentino and a handful of others, including the equally imperious Karl Lagerfeld. Valentino is shown strolling hand in hand with Lagerfeld at Valentino's July 2007 farewell bash in Rome, two months after which he officially retired. Swallowed up by big business, the great fashion houses of Europe are now mass-market franchises with designer names attached to all manner of clothing and accessories.

We watch the preparation and execution of one of Valentino's final couture shows, based on a desert theme, in which impossibly thin, elegant models dressed in white slink among fake dunes built on what could pass as the set of a '40s movie musical.

Finally, there is the climactic three-day blowout -- an extravaganza worthy of a decadent Roman emperor -- commemorating Valentino's 45th anniversary in fashion. It included a retrospective of his work at the Ara Pacis Museum, a celebrity-packed black-tie ball at the Villa Borghese and a Cirque du Soleil-like spectacle at the Temple of Venus overlooking the Colosseum, illuminated in his signature red, with high-wire ballerinas flying to and fro. Celebration is too mild a word for this obscenely opulent party: the retirement staged as a coronation..