There’s such a tactile richness of detail and extravagant emotional lushness to director Luca Guadagnino’s modern melodrama “I Am Love” that it’s easy to overlook the austere spareness of the story.
It’s in the lavish layering-on of exquisite detail from the privileged, old-world lives of its characters and in the perfectly modulated performances of the cast (especially the masterly Tilda Swinton) that the film achieves its baroque, operatic allure.
At its heart, “I Am Love” (in Italian with subtitles) is an artfully sensuous, leisurely effort to revisit the aching melodrama that so marked the works of Douglas Sirk (“All That Heaven Allows”) and gave his tortured heroines such potently ironic dilemmas.
On the surface, the dilemma of Swinton’s Emma Ricchi, beautiful matriarch of a wealthy Milan clan, seems pretty straight forward. On one hand, she’s comfortably ensconced in a life that revolves around family, a stately villa, elaborate dinner parties and the family’s textile business. The strictures of her passionless, slightly boring world are embodied by her straight-laced, conscientious son, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), who is poised to assume partial control of the business.
On the other hand, Emma’s rigidly conservative world is shaken when she encounters Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a gifted, handsome but humble young chef who hopes to open a restaurant with Emma’s grandson Edoardo (Flavio Parenti). Edo’s breaking away from family ties, along with her daughter Elisabetta’s (Alba Rohrwacher) coming out as a lesbian, embody a forbidden sense of freedom and sensuality that stir long repressed desires within Emma.
When Emma falls into a passionate love affair with Antonio, the stage is set for a heavily symbolic battle for her soul.
Writer-director Guadagnino, who reportedly spent years with his partner Swinton plotting out the essence of their story, proves himself brilliant at advancing the action through image and simmering emotion, with a minimum of dialogue. The going is slow and self-indulgent at times. But everything in Emma’s sober, suffocating world, and in her bold sexual awakening, is depicted in ravishing visuals that feel like an orgy of materialism, liberation, grief, gluttony, guilt and sex.
It’s all effectively underscored with stark, musical counterpoints by acclaimed minimalist composer John Adams (“Nixon in China”) and given needed psychological heft by the deeply layered performance of Swinton, an actress whose ethereal gifts even manage to make the story’s contrived climax seem plausible if not totally satisfying.
“I Am Love” is a swooning exercise in virtuoso acting and intellectual filmmaking. Its melodrama may be the stuff of old Hollywood formula, but in the best possible way it represents an artful triumph of style over substance.
- Dennis King
“I Am Love”
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Edoardo Gabbriellini, Flavio Parenti, Alba Rohrwacher
(Sexuality and nudity)