Review: I Am Love

“Our family’s fortune is built on unity.”

In Erick Zonca’s criminally overlooked Julia, Tilda Swinton gives a searing portrayal of a woman with no sense of control:  she drinks to brave excess, beds whoever is there before she passes out, agrees to madness and then attempts to re-shape madness to suit her own needs, by the end only barely realizing that her capacity for execution of a plan is far outweighed by every single element that surrounds her.  Swinton plays Julia as loose, sweaty, persistent, loud and desperate, yet remains thoroughly winning from start to finish.  What a thrill it must have been for the actor to go from that role to the tightly-wound, formal, soft-spoken and (ultimately) sensually pronounced Emma Recchi, in Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous and melodramatic I Am Love (Io Sono L’Amore).

Formality is the name of the game in the new film; it begins with old-world titles and the first sight we see is the grand and eloquent (but decidedly cold, and not just because it is winter) architecture of the expansive Recchi home. Having begun their textile trade during the days of Il Duce, the Recchi clan is large and very wealthy;  a holiday birthday gathering for patriarch Edoardo (Gabriele Ferzette) takes on the detail and scope of a royal banquet. Emma (Swinton), who runs the household with the help of her personal aide Ida (Maria Paiato), oversees every step of the meal’s preparation, and when everyone is gathered, three incidents occur which set in motion all that follows.

Emma’s daughter Betta (Alba Rohrwacher) gives her grandfather one of her photographs as a gift;  Edoardo makes it clear he prefers drawings, coolly snubbing the girl’s offer. At the end of the meal, Edoardo announces that he will step down, leaving the family firm in the hands of Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), his son and Emma’s husband, who was expected to take on the mantle of leadership. But Edoardo shocks everyone by announcing that his grandson Edo will share the position of authority with Tancredi. Edo strikes you immediately as a man ill-prepared for such a position. He seems too handsome, but more than that, too soft.

But when the meal is done, Edo introduces his best friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a hunky young chef, and Emma responds with appropriate niceties. With a life of such formality and constriction, such behavioral edifice, Emma is wound rather tightly, her gestures and pace seeming drawn on marionette strings. Yet during a visit to San Remo, she happens across Antonio again. This time, she is caught up in the realization that Betta is in love with another woman, and that knowledge frees her to indulge the passions that Antonio ignites. But the impacts of their affair are far-reaching, and end up causing much grief for the family. In the end, Emma’s path seems not only right and understandable, but freeing in unexpected ways.

While Guadagnino has created a lush playground for his dispassionate textile merchants and secretive lovers, Swinton again owns the film as she stunningly channels restraint, desire and grief, all to wonderful effect. Rohrwacher is also quite impressive, as she has the look of a younger Emma, down to Swinton’s angular features. Betta is mostly in the background, yet she is crucial to Emma’s ultimate decision, and the two play opposite each other splendidly.

While some might say that the film shows the collapse of the bourgeoisie under the weight of free will, unrestrained desire and unconditional love, such class dynamics are overcome by the imagery and melodramatic sense that harkens back to eras long past;  a prominent sex scene feels like a nature documentary from the late Sixties or early Seventies, and the woman-tied-down-by-societal-conventions theme is straight from American dramas of the Fifties.

I Am Love is a thing of beauty, with its lush cinematography and John Adams score that provides just the right amount of bombast for key scenes. It is a moving experience, and damn sexy, too. I can easily say that it is one of my favorite films of the year, and stands to be one of the most powerful, thanks again to Ms. Swinton’s performance.

[I Am Love opens today at the Angelika Dallas and Angelika Plano.]