Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Apr 12, 2009 6:57 pm 
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Two very good stories and a bit of repetition

This documentary by Vanity Fair correspondent Matt Tyrnauer tells two stories. First it depicts the extraordinarily long-lived life/business partnership of Valentino Garavani and Giancarlo Giametti. Second it shows the ravages of a changing world in which haute couture is falling into the hand of financiers and the exploiters of brand names. In the days of Fellini's La Dolce Vita, Valentino met Giancarlo in Rome on the Via Veneto--they differ about at which café it was--and the friendship, love affair, and business partnership that resulted led to the 45-year reign of the house of Valentino. During the year filmmaker Tyrnauer followed the partners, Valentino is both spectacularly celebrated--and chooses to resign. Bought by investors, his name now belongs to others. It is likely that the fabulous gowns all sewn by hand and covered with embroidery and sequins by a team of industrious and skillful women in Milan will no longer be made. And the whole fashion industry is changing from the top down. Compared to where it was in the grand old days of the Fifties, the fashion business today is far bigger and more profitable. But the fabulous haute couture design paraded on runways, fashion's creative center, is fading in scale and importance, because the money isn't there to pay for it. Couture is bleeding away its exquisite heart to the pursuit of "market share" and money.

In the days of his rise Valentino provided a whole wardrobe to Jacqueline Kennedy. And there were many others just as elegant and beautiful. His stated principle is that he gives women what they want and what they want is beauty. His style as a designer is supremely beautiful, accessible, classic--a little conventional (insofar as such craft and expense can be thought conventional). He awes and delights; he does not shock. Everything is sewn by hand. In the workshop where the women make his gowns, there was once a sewing machine, but nobody ever used it. The movie stars and the titled aristocrats still turn out for the fashion do's, but the fashions themselves, the most exquisite and luxurious of them, are facing gradual extinction.

Matt Tyrnauer made this film in 2007; his timing was good to tell his two stories, the human one and the financial one. (The financial one undercuts and spoils the aesthetic one, but no matter; that is precisely the subliminal message.) He captured Valentino in Rome and Paris where he has fabulous houses, in his private plane where his five pugs take up a double leather-cushioned seat, and Gstaad where (though 75) he skies downhill at breakneck speed, and on his large and streamlined yacht. We see Valentino's marvelous hand as he sketches instantly perfect designs on paper. We see the arguments over ruffles and sequins and the head seamstress berating her underlings for their incompetence when a row of stitches must be done all over. The film is not so long on detail and history but it is strong on atmosphere. And it captures the dressed-to-the-nines Italian elegance of the perfectly suited Giancarlo and Valentino and the grandeur of the runways (none grander than these) and the tension and expletives and superlatives of the fitting room.

More important, Tyrnauer captured the ceremony in Paris where Valentino, never keen to admit debts to others, holds back sobs as he acknowledges, when made a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur, that he would never have won this medal nor had this glittering career without Giammetti forever at his side. The camera swerves breathlessly back and forth between the two men, collecting Valentino's gasps and Giancarlo's elegantly modest smile and nod of thanks. It is a great moment in the histories of fashion and of gay partnerships.

Later, in Rome, the fashion house spends 200,000 euros on a fabulously beautiful and elegant celebration of the designer’s career. At this point for several years interest in the company has been bought, and there is a new business partner, Matteo Marzotto, who hovers around ineffectually. Then a financial investor gets hold of a controlling interest, and Valentino’s resignation decision comes two months after the celebration. He was never any good at business. A man with a sense of humor, he confesses in public that he was always hopeless at everything else besides designing clothes.

Valentino and Giancarlo are rarely apart, day or night. Giametti somewhat extravagantly declares that in 45 years he has only been away from Valentino for two months total. Tyrnauer has a moving target to deal with, shifting between places and from Italian to English to French in a moment. They are always on the go, never more than a few days in one place. Now and then the camera catches a choice moment of bickering. Valentino seems to object to pretty much anything he hasn't thought of himself, including a replaced ruffle, a desert background for a fashion show, a location for the Rome celebration, a choice of color. If it wasn't his idea, it sucks. He's often smiling, but his mouth is in a perpetual prune-y pout. Valentino thinks of himself as delivering decisions to Giancarlo, and often uses French to do so, though traded gibes about double chins or pot bellies or too dark a tan are tossed back and forth in Italian. And there is much to amuse and to touch here. And to gasp at: the Rome celebration is as breathtakingly gorgeous as any conspicuous display could ever be. Imagine having your life's work celebrated with fireworks over the Colosseum!

In another way Tyrnauer's timing wasn't so good, however. After Unzipped (1995), Project Runway (2005 following), two searching films about the career and life of Yves Saint Laurent (2002), The Devil Wears Prada (2006), and the recent down-market but detailed chronicle of a failed fashion house launch, Eleven Minutes (2008), movie-goers know a good deal about the haute couture story. So many elements and scenes of Valentino are vieux jeux by now, even though those of us who are fascinated by wearable art and the world of chicness will have to see one of European fashion's grandest lordlings bow out in a blaze of glory and flash cameras.

(More details about Valentino can be found in the Wikipedia article.)

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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