An amazing, bold, sensuous, erotic and utterly operatic film blows into town this week. It’s called I Am Love and was made by a man named Luca Guadagnino, whom I’d never heard of before. For that matter, until the title cropped up on a booking sheet—quickly followed by the FedEx gentleman delivering a screener—I’d heard nothing about the film either. In fact, the only name associated with it I recognized was that of Tilda Swinton—and I hadn’t realized I’d be getting a Tilda Swinton speaking Italian with—we’re told—a Russian accent (like most of us could tell). So a film I wasn’t waiting for by a filmmaker I was unaware of just shows up and blows me away. I like that. It’s the kind of thing that makes this job worthwhile in a big way.
I Am Love has been likened to the films of Douglas Sirk and Luchino Visconti, and while I certainly understand why, the comparisons fall short for me—not in the least because Visconti never made a film I liked this much and Sirk never made a film I liked at all. The truth is that while I Am Love has more than its share of the operatic soap opera, it’s never condescending in tone, which removes it from the realm of Sirk. Visconti is more to the point, since I Am Love inescapably recalls The Leopard (1963) set in modern times.
I Am Love is several things at once. On the one hand, it’s the story of a woman, Emma Recchi (Swinton), discovering herself after years of being a kind of human collectible in the Recchi household—one of the art treasures her husband, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), brought back from a trip to Russia. She has lived her adult life in his gorgeous museum-like art deco villa, bearing and bringing up his children, but with no actual personal role—until she finds one for herself in the form of her son Edoardo’s (Flavio Parenti) friend, Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). At the same time, it’s a story about the passing of an era, with the nouveau-riche family’s textile business falling prey to modern times and the dying family patriarch (Gabriele Ferzetti, Once Upon a Time in the West) opting to leave everything in the hands of both Tancredi and Edoardo, who have very different ideas of what the business was, is and should be.
I’m not about to attempt to recount the plot beyond the basics mentioned. It seems simple enough, but it’s complicated by the personalities of the characters involved—and some of those personalities are left to the viewer’s interpretation. Why, for example, is Edoardo happy to not win a race, but to tie with Antonio? Why is Edoardo so anxious to be Antonio’s friend and start a business with him? Why is Edoardo so devastated when he learns of his mother’s affair with his friend? Of which one is he jealous? The film suggests answers, but it doesn’t hand them to you. Does Emma’s daughter, Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher)—who opts to come out to her mother about her lesbianism—play a role in Emma’s decision to find her true self—the one buried under years of Recchi tradition? Considering that Elisabetta has already gone against the family by changing her interest from painting to photography, I’d say yes, but the film only suggests.
I Am Love is a rare film in so many ways. It has a lyrical, natural, non-air-brushed sensuality to it that I haven’t seen in film since Ken Russell brought Women in Love to the screen in 1969. In fact, the love scenes appear to deliberately recall moments from that film and from Russell’s Savage Messiah (1972)—to the degree that I’d be hard-pressed to believe Guadagnino was unfamiliar with them. I Am Love is refreshingly real and honest—romantic without being romanticized. Then there’s the choice to use existing music by American composer John Adams (Nixon in China) rather than an original score. Guadagnino often lets the music—especially its breathless ending—drive the film’s action and emotionalism. The effect is phenomenal, but so is the film itself. See it. Rated R for sexuality and nudity.