I emerged from Italian melodrama I Am Love with my head and heart spinning. Director Luca Guadagnino has made a rich and hypnotic film of grand scale about love, tradition and entrapment. Starring the inimitable Tilda Swinton I Am Love tells the tale of the Recchis, a high-society Milanese family, whose traditions are dissolving around them, creating first a ripple, then a tidal wave of change.
Swinton plays Russian-born Emma Recchi. When Emma’s children, Edoardo and Lisbeth, leave home (or, as it happens, leave the mansion) Emma is left with little to do but host elaborate dinner parties. Director Guadagnino lingers on the peripheral hustle and bustle of these lavish social events, creating an atmosphere of stifled, constructed opulence. Much, one intuits, goes unsaid over dinner. In direct contrast is the world of Edoardo’s friend, Antonio. The young chef Antonio cooks fresh, expressive dishes in his idyllic, untamed property in the hills near San Remo. It is here, in golden summer sun, that a passionate love affair begins between him and Emma.
Meanwhile, Edoardo is battling his father, Emma’s husband, over the sale of the family business. As Edoardo comes of age, his mother Emma regresses into the willfulness of girlhood. As he navigates the stark business boardrooms of city sky rises, she relaxes into the shimmering pastoral landscape of Antonio’s property. And when tragedy strikes, their fate remains tied – again, in opposing fashion.
Emma’s daughter Lisbeth has moved to London to study arts and has fallen in love with another woman. The position of women in the Recchi family is precarious, though this is never stated explicitly. Forced into corners, it’s
the women who end up making bold decisions in the film, with Lisbeth and ultimately Emma realising the family patriarchs have sculpted their past and future and left no room for deviations.
Swinton is mesmerising, in her odd, inaccessible way. There’s little chemistry between her and her lover Antonio, which many will find disappointing. But Guadagnino’s focus, instead, is on symbolism and imagery. Antonio is a potent lure for Emma, not because he’s handsome and young, but because he represents nature, freedom and truth – all the things she’s missing in her caged existence. Guadagnino uses techniques that are no longer en vogue like splicing nature shots (flowers, bees, sunshine) with lovemaking shots to create a montage of sensuality. While this risks making him seem squeamish it also gives the film a classic, timeless hue.
There’s an operatic quality to I Am Love and a closing sequence that left me utterly dizzy.