I Am Love is a gorgeously constructed and lushly photographed picture punctuated with thoughtful and emotional performances. In short, this 2009 Italian movie (just being released in the U.S. now) is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. Director Luca Guadagnino uses the ups and downs of an affluent Milanese family to remind us that melodrama isn’t necessarily a bad word and can enlighten us about life. Ignore any comparisons you might read to a soap opera. This is an incredibly rich and layered movie examining how love can both limit and enrich our lives.
The film opens on a snowy night as the Recchi family comes together for a birthday celebration for their patriarch. The dinner is tense. There are smiles and jokes, but we immediately sense that everyone has some ulterior motive. Some just want to be liked or accepted. Others want greater influence over the family’s textile manufacturing business. After dinner, Papa Recchi announces that it is time for him to turn over the reins of the company. Ignoring all the lessons of King Lear he divides control of the company between his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and his grandson Edoardo (Flavio Parenti). As we will come to see over the course of the movie both have very different visions of where the company should go and we are set with a classic battle. Guadagnino, however, doesn’t dwell on the business conflicts that inevitably emerge between Edoardo and his father.
Most of the focus falls on Tancredi’s wife and Edoardo’s mother, Emma (Tilda Swinton), a Russian émigré who married into the family. She seems to be content with her life, but as the film progresses we sense a boredom and disconnect from the other members of the family, especially her husband. She finds herself drawn to Edoardo’s friend Antonio, a brilliant local chef with dreams of opening a secluded restaurant in the mountains over San Remo.
It would be pointless to pursue the plot any further. This is a movie about relationships and how they develop and evolve over time, not a formal plot. Nothing is static, not even love, and Guadagnino allows the characters and their relationships to develop unrushed. We feel like we are catching moments of these lives as all of the characters struggle to reconcile their ideal with the reality. Edoardo wants the family company he loves to continue on as his grandfather ran things, but Tancredi wants to sell it off the and outsource most of the labor (to Russia no less). Emma’s daughter Betta realizes she is in love with a woman. Emma realizes she isn’t happy in her marriage and is drawn to the young chef Antonio. One of the most interesting relationships is between Antonio and Edoardo. Antonio seems to be a little in love with the young Recchi (and I don’t mean platonically) that I began to wonder if he was having an affair with Edoardo’s mother as a way of getting back at him for not returning his affection. This may come out of left field, but some of Antonio’s reactions, like when Edoardo tells Antonio he is getting married, felt like there was a homosexual subtext.
There’s so much packed into two hours that I felt like it was a much longer film. I don’t mean it dragged, but the world is so richly designed and peopled that hours after I saw it I was still working out everything I saw. Countless kinds of love are portrayed here. We watch romances flare and fizzle, maternal love tested, and platonic love strained. Even Edoardo’s love of the past and tradition and Antonio’s love of food and taste are all crucial elements in the picture. We watch all these passions ebb and flow. The point is, of course, that we must be open to change. The characters most open to change are the ones who end up better off than those who resist it, ultimately leading to tragedy.
The whole picture is anchored by two talents: director Guadagnino and the star Tilda Swinton, the first of which is somewhat flawed (more on that later). Swinton’s performance however is exquisite, a clear contender for one of the best performances of 2009 (assuming I ever make it that far in my best performances lists). While Meryl Streep is famous for seamlessly transitioning from one accent to another, how impressive is it that Swinton speaks only Italian and Russian in her performance, two languages she had to learn for the movie. In a wonderfully ironic moment she is faced with an American who tries to talk to her in English, but she doesn’t understand and her mother-in-law translates. There are countless moments of subtlety in her performance that ring true. After her first romantic encounter with Antonio, Emma bursts into her bathroom, sits on the toilet and is so giddy that she can’t stop smiling. She covers her mouth with her hand, but she just can’t control the overwhelming happiness, probably the first she has had after years of marriage to a perpetually absent husband. There is another scene later in the movie where she is distracted in conversation at another dinner party and notices her son is agitated by something. She glances down at what it is and immediately understands why he is so upset. That is a powerful moment (more so than I can indicate here without giving anything away). Her eyes spring to life but she retains her composure for the rest of the guests. Swinton affects a convincing change over the course of the movie from a complacent bourgeois housewife to a passionate lover desperate for more out of life than what her husband can offer.
The other anchor of the film is the director. He has a style that is great to watch. He turns what could have been ho-hum scenes into visual feasts. At one point Edoardo calls his mother to him as she is walking away and Guadagnino cuts to an overhead shot as Emma looks back. It’s a stunning image with the clash of the orange carpet overwhelming her in her purple (I think?) dress. Guadagnino emphasizes what we can’t see making the most mundane incidents drama inducing. Waiters quickly move around precarious corners when we can’t see what’s beyond them, convincing us that they will collide with one another. Conversations are often shot from behind one of the participants, obscuring the face, sometimes only slightly, of the other person. And Guadagnino doesn’t just do this visually. He is brave enough to allow the audience to get to know the family without telling us too much at once and gimmicky introductions. We first meet everyone at the opening birthday dinner and we feel like a stranger at the table. We have only briefly been introduced and we are struggling to remember names and trying to map out the complex web of relationships before us, just like the way we do when we are plunged into large groups of strangers. We get to know the Recchis slowly and informally. I wasn’t bothered that I didn’t know what was going on as I was entranced by figuring in all out. It was that compelling.
That said Guadagnino’s style does get in the way at times. His abrupt angles and lush lighting are beautiful to look at, but there are a few times when they pull us out of the narrative. I think the worst offence is a second lovemaking scene between Emma and Antonio in the grass that is redundant and goes on way too long. I get the feeling Guadagnino loved the images (which are beautiful) so he just couldn’t snip the scene even though the narrative would have been stronger without it. But this is a minor criticism in an otherwise stellar movie. I don’t feel like I have really done the picture justice, but it is truly special.