Emma left Russia to live with her husband in Italy. Now a member of a powerful industrial family, she is the respected mother of three, but feels unfulfilled. One day, Antonio, a talented chef and her son's friend, makes her senses kindle.
Over two decades ago, Emma left Russia to follow Tancredi Recchi, the man who had proposed to her. Now a member of a powerful industrial Milanese family, she is the respected mother of three: two sons, Edoardo who is engaged to Eva and Gianluca that are businessmen and their lesbian daughter Elisabetta that lives in Nice. Emma, although not unhappy, feels confusedly unfulfilled. One day Edoardo becomes partner in a restaurant with Antonio, a talented chef and Edoardo's friend and Emma has a love affair with him. It does not take long before she embarks on a passionate affair with the sensuous young man. When Edoardo discovers the affair of his mother there is a tragedy that will affect the Recchi family.
Milan. Winter. Upper-middle classes,Northern Italy. A dizzying array of people who all know each other and we don't.
Speaking about I Am Love, Tilda Swinton remarks, "Overcoming the idea of oneself, as created by society, has been one of my main interests since Orlando." In that earlier film, which was based on a novel by Virginia Woolf, Swinton's character self-reflected by seeing how society views her through different time periods and even a gender change. In I Am Love, Emma (Swinton) connects with love as a revolutionary force and throws off the shackles of a persona forced on her by circumstance.
I Am Love is unusual as an art film in that it is set in a world of exquisite luxury and good taste. It is not the simplistic attack on bourgeoisie we might at first expect. Working out the underlying moral fabric requires effort (but is richly rewarded). Love, or Emma, is no martyr to idealism. Revolution (of the social order) – or love – can only be justified by its success. Even the cinematic temptation to tragedy will extolled and then dashed through with a sword.
Russian-born Emma is Tancredi's wife. Tancredi co-inherits the family textile fortunes with his son Edo. Emma, although head of the household, is something of a show wife. With style and authority, but no clearly defined role in terms of business or of culture. The traditions and values of Tancredi's father for the former have maybe skipped a generation to the untried Edo. For the latter, to his sister and artist-photographer, Betta.
Secondary characters quickly provide clues to the theme. Edo's friend Antonio is an innovative, high class chef. Cuisine elicits a life-fulfilling passion in him for perfection and meaning. And Betta has a life of her own of which the parents suspect little. "Only you love me for who I really am," she tells Emma.
A superficial reading of I Am Love could leave the viewer with the impression of tragedy in which love has terrible consequences. It is essential to analyse what one actually sees (rather than a Hollywood ending that would have emphasised different points entirely). One can then imagine conversations over glasses of chablis, berating the section where the film goes 'oh so Lady Chatterley,' oblivious to how the film attacks that very same self-satisfied air of culture without visceral involvement. Even an interest in Swinton's breasts disguised by trappings of intellectual analysis. More lowbrow cinema-goers could feel even more frustrated at the 'missed opportunities' for histrionics, the emotional 'involvement' that comes from more manipulative screen writing.
I Am Love is social melodrama in the best traditions of Italian cinema. It lines up, surprisingly, more with works like L'avventura and that film's quest for self, than the compassionate criticism of an elite class in Il Gattopardo (The Leopard). In I Am Love, good taste and refinement is simply the medium for those with an ability and wherewithal to appreciate it – epitomised by Tancredi's father, his son, but perhaps not Tancredi himself. It carries no moral connotation. Empty shells on the other hand, form without substance, ultimately and unknowingly seeks its own destruction.
Tilda Swinton's career has forged a extraordinary path. In mainstream cinema, she has been hailed for work like Michael Clayton which, while impressive, hardly shows her skill in portraying worthwhile values (compared, say, to her portrait in Stephanie Daley). Or her powerhouse as an actress, in challenging cinephile gems such as The Man From London. I Am Love has potential to reach a wider, discerning audience, than her Bela Tarr movie, being shown not only in art house but as least one multiplex chain. It has an arresting, and rather beautiful romance at its heart, and one that becomes a striking metaphor for finding one's true course in life. It is ascetically 'thinking person's cinema' yet lovers of fine things can luxuriate in the sumptuous sets and costumes that inhabit art history and couture (Silvia Fendi, third generation of the famous luxury brand, was also an associate producer on the movie). Music is by Pulitzer Prize winning composer John Adams, and the perfectly choreographed closing scenes have almost operatic intensity.
One of the pleasures of writing a review is the opportunity to think a more deeply about the film - when one has to put words to paper. Only when forced to analyse the story, to separate the expected from what really happened, did I truly appreciate it. Swinton's Emma is no modern-day Madame Bovary. Style, plot and execution is far less predictable than it seems. Clichés of rich-poor, virgin-whore, as well as cinematic tropes that have become stale are effortlessly avoided. Confusing feelings are not indicated by fast cuts, but by unrelentingly staring at the character struggle in a long take.
I particularly like Swinton's power for creating interiorisation. This is visual acting at its best, showing what is going on in her head without having it spelt out. There are moments of exultation when she can barely contain herself. And moments when she struggles to stay on course – as we should, if we want to keep up. We find ourselves transfixed by her face in the bathroom. A place of privacy, where she can almost admit to herself the jubilation at a stolen kiss. And, like the art book she forgets to pay for, full of future portent. Or the moments when she is torn, at the climax of the film. The difficult self-examination in the midst of events. When Tancredi summons damnation in the words, "You don't exist," she has passed the point where she might cling to merely existing. Freedom is the power to 'go,' and to 'do.' Any avowedly lightweight cinemagoer might complain that the deaths are not dramatic enough. The cinematography not stark enough (to make us gasp in awe every few seconds at the beautiful surroundings) or the dialogue not self-explanatory enough.
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