Sunday, March 29, 2009

Afterthoughts: Movie: Valentino

I recently went to see Valentino: The Last Emperor, a documentary about the now 77-year-old fashion designer who dressed a long line of famous women from Jacqueline Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn to Gwyneth Paltrow.

To my surprise, the screening, at 1:15 on a Thursday, was packed, largely with fashionable women. Were these the ladies who always lunched? Or was this a sign that everyone in the fashion industry has been laid off?

Valentino’s director is a writer for Vanity Fair, which gives you a sense of the movie’s style. It’s splashy and intelligent, insidery and fawning, with all the icky pleasures of high-end wealth and celebrity porn.

The whole world of haute couture often seems purely bizarre to me, but this film gave me a strong a sense as I’ve ever had of fashion’s glamour and allure.

I can certainly appreciate the fantasy element—as a small boy, Valentino fell in love with the fantasia of beauty he saw in fabulous gowns he saw in American movie musicals of the 1940s. It’s so often said to be the outsider’s dream--to create a beautiful alternative universe into which one might escape.

At the same time, fashion (not unlike gossip or other kinds of social arbitrage) can seem like an excellent vehicle for an outsider’s revenge. I can’t think of many other escapist fantasies with the potential to exercise such tyranny over my choices.

If I can’t find a nice, practical item like a black crew-neck sweater, I blame fashion. Science fiction writers can create worlds full of aliens, but you don’t have to wear them.

And then again, it can’t be easy to be dedicated follower of fashion. Even in this movie, those who adopt glamour as a lifetime’s pursuit seem to morph toward a sort of outlandishness.

Some of the aging and cosmetically altered may seem like monuments to the costs of vanity, but others whose emphasis is less on youth and more on style seem simply more unique. I like them better once they’re past their prime—as beauty fades, the will to creation becomes clear. The people seem like works of art. They are their own canvas.

The film closes a celebration of Valentino’s 45-year career—a three-day retrospective bash that culminates with a scene in which models float on wires in front of Rome’s Temple of Venus, their long gowns fluttering in the night breeze. Here, again, is the ambivalence of opulence—the sheer, lush delight of it, and then the obscene extravagance.

The moral center of the film, oddly, is a love story—the nearly 50-year relationship between Valentino and his business and life partner, Giancarlo Giammetti.

It made me think of Chris & Don, the film about the 35-year relationship between the writer Christoper Isherwood and his much younger lover Don Bachardy, which I saw in the last year or so, and even further back to Paul Monette’s paean to his partner in Borrowed Time.

I was trying to think if there were any lesbian equivalents in this genre—aside from Gertrude and Alice, who told their own story, none come to mind. Like the men, Stein and Toklas combined the long intimacy with very public lives.

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