by Richard von Busack
The beauty of I Am Love is perplexing; it’s as bewildering as the beauty of its star, the lean Scottish redhead Tilda Swinton. Like Julianne Moore, Swinton is a congenitally brave actress who has matured into a performer, free of self-consciousness to an almost inhuman degree. Swinton, now nearing 50, is a vision: clear eyed, short haired, and immaculately dressed for this expensive romance. But don’t let the trailers fool you; I Am Love isn’t mere art-house swankery.
Swinton is an object d’art here; because of her snow-white skin Swinton, can wear colors that would look hideous on other people. (It’s been that way since Derek Jarman garbed her with neon fun furs in her earliest films.) The rising passion of a long-married wife is signaled during a tryst, by her wearing bright-orange trousers the color of a safety cone: on Swinton, they look modulated, the shade of a vixen’s tail.
The colors in I Am Love are a rebuke to how dismal synthetic coloring is. Using what resembles pre-flashed stock, Yorick Le Saux, who worked on Francois Ozon’s See the Sea and Swimming Pool, gradually works up to the glowing, creamy colors of the sun. The last shot fills the screen with a carpet of gold in an empty hallway in a patch of sunlight. This movie is one long visual parable of thawing.
Director Luca Guadagnino begins with arresting images of Milan in winter: locked tight under a foot of snow, the place is a city of fortresses suffused with icy mist. As John Adams’ tense music from Nixon in China simmers away, we survey a villa of almost Soviet brutality. It’s the home of the Recchis, a family that made its millions in the textile trade. (Anxious to not to use Marxism as a crutch, the director indicates the family’s wealth by abstract images of weaving looms, not showing us the workers tending them.)
The family is gathering for the big annual event, the birthday celebration of the patriarch. The pretentious old man is played by the legendary Gabriel Ferzetti, and his somewhat younger wife is Marisa Berenson, glazed as expensive pottery and stretched with cosmetic surgery. Old Eduoardo plans to retire and pass on the business to the next generation.
The heir presumptive—the handsome and kind grandson Edo (Flavio Parenti), is bypassed for reasons only the Recchis would understand. He lost a race of some sort, in which it was a family tradition to compete and win. It’s such a dishonor that they tease him about it throughout the dinner. But the decision is made; the direction of the company is given to Edo’s father, Edoardo Jr. played by Pippo Delbono, a sinister party who looks like a hybrid of Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover.
The story resumes a few months later, with the old grandfather dead, and Edoardo completely consumed by the family business in London. His wife Emma (Swinton), always solitary, is now more alone than usual amid the heavy stones and dismal paintings of the villa. Adding keenness to Emma’s loneliness is the discovery of the secret love life of her grown daughter (Alba Rohrwacher) who has moved away to London. But Emma is distracted by a new character: a chef who caters the family’s formal banquets: Antonio (Edoardo Gabbrilini), a handsome devil with a tattooed bracelet. Unfortunately, this chef is her son Edo’s new best friend.
Guadagnino touches upon the best novels about adultery: the name Emma, as in Bovary, is certainly significant. There’s a most explicit love scene in the mountains near San Remo that’ll be too fulsome for some, but which is as pure a visualization of Lady Chatterly’s Lover as we’ll see: flowers, fruit and drowsy insects surround Antonio and Emma as they make love in the grass. The director has one especially intelligent idea: the idea of how food and taste express information. The first connection between Antonio and Emma through a meal he prepares—she’s thunderstruck with how good it tastes. Later, an illicit affair is discovered as much by circumstantial evidence, as by a plate of soup.
I Am Love is a rich movie—a banquet, certainly—and the richness of it may seem off-putting; in these times, there’s so much financial suffering that many may be impatient with the problems of a luxuriously clad woman of leisure. But this classic drama of adultery--spare in plot, fascinating in design-is a revenge of the world of art on the world of property. And we haven’t seen such a story this well framed in a long time.
The director is a wit, but a wise, calm one: the Visconti-like portrait of the banality of old, stagnant wealth steals up on you. The attacks on the Recchis are strictly for the careful watcher to notice. A background incident, for instance: despite the elderly matriarch’s intense snobbery, she turns her full 500 candlepower smile on an American-Asian financier of no breeding but with a well-padded wallet. Earlier we saw this upstart plutocrat give a suave speech about the beneficial side of war. For that matter, Emma herself is a kind of prisoner of class war: a lonely woman in a tower rescued by the power of love and the senses.