Thursday, November 25, 2010
I Am Love ***½
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Cast: Tilda Swinton
Flavio Parenti, Edoardo Gabbriellini, Alba Rohrwacher
Pippo Delbono, Maria Paiato, Gabriele Ferzetti, Mattia Zaccaro
Waris Ahluwaia, Marisa Berenson
I Am Love feels like watching an opera on mute. Despite its baroque qualities, strokes of Sirkian melodrama and decadent visuals, its intensity seems muffled, brilliantly contained, so that we're forced to face what we see under a new light.
Anchored by an astonishing lead performance by Tilda Swinton, the film concentrates on the slight downfall of an Italian industrialist family.
The Recchi family is formed by patriarch Edoardo (Ferzetti) and his wife Allegra (Berenson). Their son Tancredi (Delbono), his Russian wife Emma (Swinton) and their children: Edoardo Jr. (Parenti), Elisabetta (Rohrwacher) and Gianluca (Zaccaro).
When we first meet them they are celebrating Edoardo Sr.'s birthday where he announces he's retiring from business and passing the business to his son Tancredi and his grandson Edoardo Jr.
His grandson's inclusion sends the first ripples of change as family and friends begin to wonder why the patriarch would do such a thing, especially considering Edoardo has just come from losing a race earlier that day, to a chef.
When the chef, Antonio (Gabbriellini), arrives at the party that night bringing a cake as a peace offering, or perhaps aware that he has unintentionally imbalanced the Recchi clan, there is a strange feeling of discomfort in the film.
Coming from the lush, long sequences where we saw the family smile and toast over expensive silverware and in even more expensive gowns, we suddenly come to the image of this young man standing outside in the snow with a box.
He opens the box to show the cake to Edoardo and his mother but we never see it and any feelings you might have that this mysterious cake is in fact a bomb about to explode, will be completely justified as the film unfolds.
As Edo takes a liking to Antonio so does his mother and in an exquisite scene we see her realize she might be attracted to the young man as she relishes in a prawn dish.
As they embark on an affair, the film's title begins to make sense as love lands on the Recchis with complete aplomb. Emma who at first had been more of a supporting character suddenly takes prominence (and you have to see how surprisingly easy it becomes for the fantastic Swinton to not steal the show). It's almost as if the film begins to get rid of the layers that concealed who she really was to begin with.
If you thought you had seen all that Tilda Swinton could do, you are in for a real treat with her subdued performance as Emma.
The chamaleonic actress slips into this woman with such ease that you have to wonder where one ended and the other began. Swinton's worldly features take on the quality of someone who know nothing and it's a thing of beauty to see her light up as she begins to discover the world for the first time.
Watch her in scenes with Rohrwacher (a strike of genius mother-daughter casting) as she shifts from flawless mother figure to full blown woman and later in scenes with Gabbriellini as she completely disregards these maternal qualities and turns them into complete sensual surrender.
Despite what the character makes us believe at the beginning, Swinton is in full command in this film; you can feel her love for challenging art in every frame (it helps that she's dressed by Jil Sander and Fendi) as she exploits and bends established genre conventions.
Because in the strictest sense, I Am Love is an efficiently executed melodrama with a straightforward plot we've seen a million times before but its mise-en-scene and planning reveals layers that serve as means to explore European economic history, various artistic movements and metaphysical notions of what is to love.
For example on the surface, Emma's affair comes off as something typical of a romantic novel (she's even named after Madame Bovary) but she's also used to explore the role that Russia came to figure in non-communist Europe.
We realize how Emma had to overcome her entire legacy in order to fit in this wealthy Italian clan. We learn that Emma isn't even her real name (her husband gave it to her) and we can assume she's come to form part of a life that would've been considered the antithesis of what she was before.
Therefore when she begins her affair, besides all the sentimental and carnal connotations, we can detect something else being said. Why is she so attracted to this young man who's so outside her social circle?
It can be no coincidence that Emma becomes attracted to the only character in the movie who is not bourgeois. Is she identifying with him, because like her Antonio didn't receive everything on a silver platter?
Is this affair an actual rebellion towards the forces of capitalism that the Recchis represent? This is particularly striking because in a subplot we see Edoardo Jr.'s refusal to sell the company to a huge industrial group out of loyalty to tradition. Guadagnino doesn't invest too much in this particular story but he is trying to say something about the way in which love subverts the notions we have of materialistic success.
Besides these political strokes, Guadagnino also pays homage to Hitchcock, Malick and especially Visconti (the first part is straight out of The Leopard and it's no coincidence he named one of the characters Tancredi...) as he indulges himself in long takes of these people's lives and surroundings.
Everything about I Am Love can get to be so majestic and pompous that we often are left wondering how it's also able to haunt us so much.