dir: Luca Guadagnino
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You wouldn’t think a title like I Am Love would pack them into the multiplexes. I guess in Italian, if you’re not an Italian speaker, Io Sonno L’Amore sounds that much more exotic and alluring. Despite these obvious obstacles, these wonderful people still thought they’d get together and create an exquisite flick about how passion makes idiots of otherwise rational people, as if the books Madam Bovary and Anna Karenina were never written, and no-one ever read them.
Honestly, I can’t recall the last time it was implied in a flick that women could have sex with someone outside of their marriage and that it didn’t result in death, murder, suicide or the end of the fucking world. Is it really that catastrophic? Male characters cheat constantly, and the world seems to keep turning, and yet whenever a female character, and a mother, no less, finds passion or solace in the arms of another, someone always ends up dead.
Of course it would be unfair of me to assert that this flick is going for anything close to a moralistic or judgemental tone in the slightest. It’s anything but what it sounds like I’ve described, because it’s an amazing construction. I rarely see flicks, and I’ve seen a bundle, so exquisitely and meticulously put together. It’s so intricately put together, from a cinematography, set design, sound, score and editing point of view, that there’s almost little room for the acting performances.
Almost, but not quite. This flick is an engine, or a machine at least. Not a single shot is taken simply when it can be done in a far more fussy and seemingly meaningful way. Even as I marvelled at it from a distance, and realised I was more impressed with the construction that the content, I had to remind myself that it’s still about people. Rich people. Rich People With Problems.
The film opens to tremendously sumptuous imagery, whether it’s the snow-bound buildings of Milan in winter, or the preparations for a feast at the Recchi manor. The Recchi’s are wealthy textile industrialists, and their declining patriarch is celebrating what will be his last birthday. He’s just a cranky old man who doesn’t matter too much in the scheme of things, but the rest of the Recchi’s certainly do. Emma Recchi (the always luminous Tilda Swinton) doesn’t look like anyone else around her. Married to the presumptive heir of the Recchi fortune, she is a somewhat devoted mother to her grown children: Edo, Betta and Gianluca, but she seems to be living something of a life closed off from the rest of the living. As a Russian trophy wife, who is nonetheless adored by her kids and loved by her husband, she is a prisoner of someone’s making, in the most gilded of gilded Milanese cages.
The bars are invisible, though, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone actively trying to keep her down. She feels some lack, and we sense it too.
This is not a flick with copious dialogue, especially for Tilda, since I’m not sure how fluently she actually speaks Italian. From the sounds of it, not that much, but it fits for the character, who’s not a native Italian speaker either. The script rarely uses more than a few words where a few words suffice, and that’s as much as I can ever ask from a script.
This hunger for passion, this longing for something to long for, manifests itself in strange ways. At a guess I think it’s implied, when she accidentally finds out something regarding her daughter’s struggle with her sexuality, that Betta’s self-acceptance becomes a catalyst for what happens next.
Her favoured son Edo (Flavio Parenti), the apple of her eye, and, as far as I can tell, the only one of her kids to whom she taught Russian (making, in a critical scene, the clear allusion to one’s ‘mother tongue’), is some kind of golden child; handsome and intelligent, and blessed with all the virtues extreme wealth and a mother like Tilda could possibly provide you with. He becomes friends with an accomplished chef called Antonio (Edoardo Gabriellini), who inadvertently works his way into the family’s lives only through the passion he puts into the food he cooks.
He’s barely spoken two words to Emma, and she’s barely spoken to him, but once she eats his food, well, it’s like all the hard work of foreplay has already been done. His food transmutes her confusion and hunger (not for food) into a passionate madness that can only apparently be sated in one hot, ecstatic way.
In a scene in the seaside town of San Remo, she accidentally spies on Antonio, and starts madly following him as if the flick temporarily transformed into a spy thriller, complete with a running chase, fearful hiding and a pounding, thrilling soundtrack. We realise how absurd it is, because there’s nothing really dangerous going on, no lives are in the balance, no Jason Bourne is going to pop out of a side-street and start beating three shades of shit out of the chef for using too much garlic in his aioli. But even if it raises a smile, we understand that to Emma, it is passion driving her on, and a fear only of what she might do if she catches a few more glimpses of him.
Of course, if they weren’t to transgress, there wouldn’t be a story, or more of a story, or a way to end it. When it happens, it happens hard, and they succumb to that kind of falling-into-you madness that renders the recipient oblivious to the outside world.
The problem is, the outside world always intrudes. It’s just what it does. One second, you’re fucking in nature, marvelling and admiring what time and motherhood have done to Tilda Swinton’s body, a body she seems completely at ease with, and more power to her, and the next, your intelligent and hurt son starts making allegations that you don’t really have reasonable responses for.
When it runs off the rails, it really does, and it’s towards the end where it loses a certain level of coherence and believability that exemplified the preceding hour and a half. For all of Emma’s passion and Antonio’s intensity, where the film takes them makes sense up to a point, but the film deliberately chooses to ‘not’ make sense at the end, in an attempt to, I’m not sure. While the way the flick is put together throughout its run time works beautifully early on, I think it negates the ending by being overly stylised, and, I have to admit as well, that I didn’t entirely grasp what happened at the end, or, more importantly, why everyone in the last scene was acting in such strange ways.
Which doesn’t make me like the flick any less. This film is a work of art. I don’t mean that I’m pretentiously saying that good movies are works of art because they’ve been anointed as such by Me. I mean, I Am Love is an exquisite, tender, amusing and beautiful construction, one that has been fussed over and nutted out endlessly for years. I believe Tilda herself was one of the driving forces behind getting the flick made, due to her love of the book the screenplay is based on, and I can’t fault her for a second in her intentions or what she and the director deliver here. Her performance is tremendous throughout, and, if the language was an issue, it compelled her to give even more in expression and body language than some other Italian actress would have had to.
The flick is no masterpiece by any stretch, but it is a very well-made film, definitely. I have problems with nothing said or done, but I do have some issues with the story, that I won’t go into because it would seem churlish. Actually, fuck that, I am a thorough churl, so I’ll mention it a bit: I don’t need or like stories that remind me of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’s sex scenes or the myriad of anti-women cheating literature that stinks up the classics shelves. ‘Women getting punished for straying’ stories don’t interest me thematically or intellectually any more that ‘virtuous women being rewarded for their chastity and virtue’ stories. Both suck, and both are ancient manifestations of men’s insecurity and fear over female sexuality.
Still, it’s a minor point. These are ancient themes. People do lose their minds over passion. People do get hurt when it happens, and for me to argue otherwise would be pointless in the extreme and tedious in the meantime. Suffice to say that out of this mundanity comes, occasionally, something fairly sublime, like this exquisite film. I may not be Love, in fact I’m far more likely to be Sarcasm or Persnickety Peevishness instead, but I certainly did love (much) of this film. I could care less about the family problems of the immensely wealthy in general, but this time it did make me think and feel for a while. Just for a while…
7 times Tilda sometimes seems so much better than the rest of us humans out of 10
“I am love, love, love. And the angel approaches with a kiss, and in that kiss is death.” – La Mamma Morta