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F is for Film: Valentino: The Last Emperor (plus awesome behind-the-scenes dishing from the director at our screening!)

Why male models were key to the successful filming of Valentino: The Last Emperor
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“I love beauty. It's not my fault.”
Valentino Garavani

I hear there's a seven-hour version of Valentino: The Last Emperor, and I'm fixin’ to see it. Whether or not you're “into” fashion, the 90-minute version you'll see in theatres is just a teaser for a slew of fascinating personalities (Antoinetta the Sewing Harridan! Michael the Butler!), behind-the-scenes details (including Valentino's team of skilled seamstresses, none of whom uses a sewing machine -- you'll understand the price of couture) and bittersweet workings of a fading fashion era.

Valentino is also the best reality-TV you'll see on the big screen. The sophisticated word for it is “documentary,” but it doesn't convey the level of entertainment the film delivers. You'll see OTT personas (mostly Valentino's -- he carries himself like an emperor, aloof, contained and mysterious -- but watch for the busty former-model socialite in the too-small sample-size gown), bickering-schoolboy arguments, quietly tender moments, delightfully funny scenes, spectacle and celebrity fans.

Valentino "wild-eyed and panicked" at first screening

At the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto this past Monday, producer/director Matt Tyrnauer told us, a preview audience, that even he was surprised at how easy it was to get filming approval from Valentino and Giancarlo Giammetti, his companion and business partner of nearly 50 years. He speculates that they really didn't understand they were the focus. Both very private men, their naiveté about the documentary is evident on screen. In fact, they hated the film when he finally let them see it at its first screening -- they were wild-eyed and panicked like escapees from a mental asylum (his characterization, not mine!). They thought the movie was going to be all about the glamour, beauty and celebrity of their fashion world, not the intimate story of their relationship.

Male models were the key

How Tyrnauer got that intimacy on film is one of his best stories. It hinged on key advice he got from famed fashion photographer Bruce Webber: hire male models to work for you and you'll get double the face time. Genius. The two models were a hit -- Valentino and Giancarlo apparently used any excuse to have them present.“‘My darling, we need the puppies. Bring the models,’” quotes Tyrnauer in a Valentino-esque accent.

“We trained the models to put the microphones on Valentino and Giancarlo,” Tyrnauer told us. (Miking was a more complicated task than it sounds, what with the artful tie and collar arrangements that only look as though no time at all was spent on them). Then it was “‘My darling, when do we get the microphones?’” And those microphones catch every conversation detail, including my favourite “your belly is showing” scene (you'll see).

"Matt, I really want an Oscar."

So, other than fleeting on-screen appearances from “Fashion File” host Adrian Mainella and FT's Jeanne Beker, how is this related to Made-in-Canada Month? From the very first screening, Tyrnauer's relationship with Valentino, who he calls “the most difficult man on the face of the earth,” was... uneasy. (The filmmaker likened it to a war with a cross between the Mafia and La Cage aux Folles.) Although audience appreciation was clear from that first showing, it was a screening at Toronto's Wintergarden Theatre last September that turned things around. After a 15-minute standing ovation, which, according to Tyrnauer, Valentino accepted from the balcony with an Eva Perón air, the designer finally seemed to accept the accolades as though he had never doubted any other response. Apparently Valentino now says things like, “Matt, I really want an Oscar.” And Tyrnauer hasn't yet told him that he, not Valentino, would be taking Oscar home if the film were to win one.

Meeting Valentino

Did I tell you I once met Valentino? It was the launch of the Rock’n Rose fragrance in New York, November 2006 (technically, it ought to be ’n’, but grammar clearly isn't important on packaging). Valentino was seated on a charming couch in a cosy hotel room with about 15 beauty journalists perched on chairs in a half-circle around him. His answer to every question was beauty, that the scent was for beautiful girls who shop by day and party at night, who know how to dress themselves beautifully, without effort... beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. (In the middle of our meeting, Valentino's cel phone rang, and yes, he answered it, had a little convo, then graciously returned his attention to the room.) After the Q&A, each editor was invited to sit by him for a photograph -- which reminds me, I haven't seen mine. Not ever. Wonder what happened to it?

Valentino: The Last Emperor opens tonight in Canada. See it. Then let's talk about catching the seven-hour cut in NYC.

Oh, and click here for one more anecdote from Tyrnauer on what Valentino says about Orlando Bloom.