I Am Love is the kind of textural cinema that reminds you what makes flickering pictures combined with sound so special as its own medium. Working in a way only cinema can, a script that is essentially a bourgeois melodrama about a wealthy Italian family becomes an exploration of the senses and memory and how they relate to moments of passion under the guidance of Italian director Luca Guadagnino. At the heart of this is an incredible performance from Tilda Swinton, who plays a Russian turned Italian with the usual energy and honesty she brings to her roles.
With an opening that recalls The Godfather in how it demonstrates tradition, dynamic, and power structure within the Recchi clan based on how they arrive to and find their place at a family event, I Am Love eases us into what might be the most sublime soap-opera ever made. A wealthy Italian family, long made rich from the textile industry, appears to be a loving and stable upper-class family. While there is an unexpected turn when the family patriarch decides to bequest his leadership role within the business not just to his own son, but to his young grandson as well, the film makes no attempt to find some rotten core or darkness in the family. The drama comes as we learn more about Emma (Swinton), the wife and mother of the newly appointed business leaders, as well as Eduardo, her aforementioned son. Both are finding themselves increasingly out of place in their family as Emma struggles with adulterous passion and Eduardo with a resistance to the cold evolution of the family business.
Emma is an isolated woman- brought over from Russia by her husband Tancredi, she is a beloved member of the family but seems most at home behind the scenes of the lavish dinners and parties, with only the reports of the lead housemaid (who she gets along with best) tying her to the actual events. Eduardo also is the apple of much of the family’s eye, but when thrust into the business he grows uncomfortable with its move away from tradition. Tied into the hopes of both is Eduardo’s best friend Antonio, who starts a restaurant with Eduardo’s help, as well as a smoldering adulterous relationship with Emma.
All of this is filmed with an energetic, searching camera that allows Guadagnino the freedom to find the small moments that make the film feel real and relatable, despite the wealth of the characters. We may spend a few minutes breathing hard in the cold with Antonio while he waits at a door, or we may watch secretly from above or from behind columns as Emma chases down her soon-to-be lover through beautiful Italian streets. This grounding helps, as the film is shot with a look as upscale as its characters. Seemingly ripped from watch and perfume adds from the pages of VOGUE or Vanity Fair, there is a grainy, golden texture to every frame (which are often themselves filled with the fashion and design of extreme luxury).
Guadagnino’s camera also excels at translating what it is that makes up those memories we keep forever. Important moments focus on the touch, smell, taste, and feel of passionate moments which includes an almost fetishistic eye for filming food. In the Italian tradition, food is an integral part of the drama of life and it would be hard to find a narrative where more key scenes involve or directly revolve around food this side of The Sopranos. Meals and sex are both shot with an energy and attention to minute environmental detail that ties them together, making one evoke the other. Emma’s relationship with Antonio is marked by that frolicking adrenaline of a new, passionate couple that inevitably returns to sex as a punctuation mark for any special moment (then followed by a meal, of course!). These trysts translate through the screen that sense of experience being tied to the senses when we make a memory we will keep forever. Emma’s momentary flashbacks to Russia carry this same weight.
While the cast is universally great, is is naturally Tilda Swinton that stands front and center as a turn-of-the-millennium Edna Pontellier. Swinton is not afraid to bare all (repeatedly) with a man half her age, quietly emanating regained naivety and motherly experience. Her best scene is perhaps one she shares with her daughter- the young woman is revealing to her mother that she is in love with another woman, and as the two smile over photos, we get the sense that Emma is both curious and truly happy for her daughter. Swinton doesn’t resort to obvious projections of any envy Emma may feel for her daughters liberation, but rather trusts the audience to know it’s there beneath the genuine motherly happiness. Emma deals with intense tragedy later in the film with an equal amount of powerfully subtle complexity.
The standout attributes of the film are certainly Swinton and the sensory-focused direction, but I Am Love is a rewarding and rich film that, if you allow it, will keep you awash in beauty and character right until the heart-pounding climax. The movie builds until the very last frame, and though you’re not quite sure all of the characters have made the right choices, you’re certainly moved by them. I haven’t notice myself get caught up in the emotion of a film in too long, and it’s a great to actually feel something in a theater- a rare experience so far in 2010.