I Am Love combines beautiful evocations from various media -- art, design, fashion, opera and especially food -- yet it never offers much lucid inspection of any one of them, and the whole is too messy to gel into a working film. It wants to be operatic, elegiac on the epic scale of Visconti's The Leopard. But that was a film that never let its passion dip below a rolling boil; Luca Guadagnino has made his film in a time wherein "melodrama" has become a four-letter word, so he attempts to cover his bases by trapping the swirling emotions this type of film should contain underneath the glacier of classical European art drama.
The opening shots underline this split, as the camera moves through images of post-industrial factories blanketed in snow with the ornate scrawl of the title card placed over the drab backdrops. These shots are graceful but unimpressive, and the occasional quick cuts that randomly shatter the mood without warning or meaning set a precedent for some sloppy editing here and there. The camera at last settles on a mansion, tracking with geometric precision until it moves inside to document the Recchi family, a group of people as outdated as the palatial home in which they live.
Servants clean dishes alongside Emma (Tilda Swinton), a Russian who married the Italian Tancredi and moved into this lavish villa to spend her days not doing much of anything. She, like her husband and children, always dress impeccably, even when they clearly have nothing planned that day and some only leave the house for minor errands. They could have fallen out of one of Bergman's more stately films, and the alignment of the family on the poster recalls similar blocking in Distant Voices, Still Lives, an attempt to capture the same sense of familial imprisonment.
But I Am Love only fleetingly conveys these feelings. One could attribute the more objective aesthetic to a reflection of Emma's own alienation from her emotions, but she does not appear to be unhappy in any way with her life. At a birthday dinner for the family patriarch, Edoardo, Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti), she is as delighted as everyone else when the old man names his son, Tancredi, and grandson, Edoardo, Jr. (Flavio Parenti), as the new owners of the family textile factory. Everyone celebrates though they must have known ownership would pass down the family line, and Emma swells with pride. That textiles are a relic does not matter: this is a family business, and it has already provided enough generational wealth to make inevitably dwindling profits a concern for the middle-class person they no doubt hired to sort out financial affairs.
The only indication of something inside of Emma yearning for change comes when a chef who beat Edoardo, Jr. (also called Edo by most of the family), comes by to offer a cake as a conciliatory measure. Edo is delighted by the man's kindness and insists he come inside, but Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) politely declines, not wishing to intrude on the festivities. A passing Emma gets a look at him, though, and when Antonio quietly slips back out into the snow, a light comes on in an upstairs window, and Emma floats to the portal, peering outside of the curtain as if trapped in a Bröntean prison. Her old life did not constrain her previously, but a mere glance has put something into her mind, a faint pause where one did not previously exist. But is that dissatisfaction with the old way, or a sudden desire to try something fresher, more unknown?
I Am Love modestly scales down The Leopard's mournful commentary on changing times to a simpler look at the intoxicating allure of the new. The family itself has already survived the changing times that would have claimed anyone else: the factory still churns out fabric, still turns some kind of profit and the family enjoys aristocratic opulence. Only a mild comment from the younger son, Giancula, to his older brother about their grandfather exploiting forced Jewish labor during World War II hints at a darker past. By casting Ferzetti, star of Michaelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura, as the patriarch, Guadagnino recasts the modernity of that film as the old hat, the past he and others must now overcome to make their name when Antonioni is still praised even in death as the greatest of modern cinematic poets. It's a deft touch that opens up interpretations of the struggle of the Italian filmmaker to follow in the patriarch's footsteps or try to make a new way, an themes that are sadly unexplored.
For the rest of the movie is about Emma, played brilliantly by Swinton. Most filmmakers use her androgyny, that otherworldly aspect of her unconventional beauty. Because they allow for the more masculine attributes of her angular face, many often give her more traditionally "masculine" parts, and Swinton has shined in recent years with meaty, talky parts in which she controls much of the action. Her Oscar-winning turn in Michael Clayton threatened to overshadow the host of solid performances in the film, her conniving lawyer providing an icy, villainous logic to offset Tom Wilkinson's crumbling sanity and George Clooney's slowly seeping gallantry. I was so torn on Julia I've yet to review it, but her portrayal of the title character's fleeting ability to stay just ahead of her impending self-immolation fluctuated between dramatic intensity and a glorious flourish of overwrought melodrama in a way that made her irresistible even if the movie's mood swings and unnecessary length dragged the proceedings down.
But her role here recalls her extended cameo in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Also a socialite wife in Fincher's fairy tale ode to classic Hollywood. In that film, as this one, her life is comfortable and not particularly repressive, but the entrance of a force she cannot explain, a whisper of new, fresh life in the form of a man she does not particularly know. Emma comes across as an even more frigid and poised version of Elizabeth Abbot, the Russian winters of her youth having imbued her with a frosty countenance even at her most jovial and kind.
If nothing else, Guadagnino does us the service of presenting Swinton in purely feminine terms, never feeling the need to remind the audience that, just because she does not fit the narrowly defined guidelines of Hollywood attractiveness, Swinton must be considered weird (her weirdness is a whole other matter entirely). She looks even paler than usual from pancake makeup, a streak of red lipstick a tantalizing burst of color, as if all the blood in her face drained and pooled in her lips. After playing so many hard-edged characters lately, she displays an intense matronly warmth, treating her daughter's sexual identity with compassion and understanding and supporting her son's advancement within the company. But that look of longing in her eyes is piercing, when Antonio reciprocates she looks as if she might explode with pleasure in his presence.
Sadly, everything else borders on parody. Guadagnino's close-ups on art and food morph from a beautiful evocation to the most pretentious slide show in human history, a constant cutting between immaculately composed but lifeless shots that suck the air Swinton breathes into the film. Her lust is nakedly unlocked by a prawn dish Antonio prepares for her, a scene that unfolds with such unintentional hilarity that I half expected it to end with the punchline cutaway to a woman at another table saying, "I'll have what she's having." The other characters are rigidly divided along "old" and "new" lines, from Elisabetta's lesbianism and her pursuit of the arts representing more modern viewpoints and Edo, his named tied to the grandfather and patriarch, adheres to the more chauvinistic and greedy style of his father. Except when he doesn't. There's no consistency to these caricatures even though they are uniformly two-dimensional.
One cannot deny that Yorick Le Saux's cinematography is crisp and gorgeous, nor that Swinton isn't, as ever, at the top of her game. But it's all for naught. All of the beautiful shots of food and faces and art and nature lose their luster, and they drag on Swinton's lush and exotic performance. It's like seeing a Ferrari with a boat trailer attached to it, and just because the boat in question is a yacht doesn't make the setup any less lugubrious and absurd. The music of the excellent American composer John Adams is used throughout -- contrary to some reports, he composed no new music for the score -- but it does not fit. Guadagnino wants to make this an opera, but his use of Adams' actual operas clashes horrendously with the slowly paced, uneventful narrative.
Laughable juxtapositions abound, from Adams' ill-fitting score to some edits that would have gotten me thrown out of a theater for laughing so hard. When Emma discovers a note written by her daughter admitting to her lesbianism, the director cuts to shots of Milanese cathedrals surrounding Emma, the implications of old-school religious condemnation lazy and inarticulate, the equivalent of a rakishly raised eyebrow and a gentle nudge to the ribs. Having rewatched Black Narcissus the same day, I found Powell's cutaways to flowers, vibrant explosions of the passion that seeped out of every frame of that film, meaningful and evocative in a manner that Guadagnino aims for but does not reach. His close-ups on flowers during his distant and cold shots of sex (which still manage to get in some male gazes for all their stiffness) are desperate grabs for the same emotion, but all they amount to are sub-Georgia O'Keeffe evocations of a vagina.
Only at the last moments does the film finally play into the operatic tone it wanted to attain throughout. There are those who would criticize the ending from breaking totally from the tone of the rest of the film, its euphoric leap into boisterous music and epic framing wholly at odds with the progression to that point, even the melodramatic climax. But that is a drawback of film criticism, the need to justify each scene within the narrow context of how it fits everything else in the movie. Never mind that literature has enjoyed such breaks for centuries -- Hamlet featured a freaking play within a play, after all. The best parts of great movies can be total separations from the more objective moods for a flash of intense subjectivity (or the other way around, providing sudden clarity the character does not have). The last three minutes of I Am Love so happen to be the best part of a mediocre movie, and for that I am grateful.