“I Am Love” tells us the story we have heard countless times from many tales – from literature books to your average trashy soap drama on TV. After having been living as someone more or less than a component of her comfortable world, she suddenly finds something she passionately wants – something that is acceptable to some degrees but is not inappropriate to be revealed to the people she has lived with for a long time. Maybe she has some second thought about it after her realization, but, folks, have you ever heard of anyone who can stop his/her heart when it truly wants to be happy?
When we first meet Emma Recchi, played by Tilda Swinton, it is quite apparent to us that she is an outsider among her people because of her Russian accent. A long time ago, she met her Italian husband Tancredi Recchi(Pippo Delbono) through her father, a restoration expert, in Russia, and, after his proposal and following wedding, she came to Milan with Tancredi and has lived there since without going back to her country.
Although the relationship between Emma and her blunt, aesthetic husband is based on formality rather than love, the life in his house has been not bad to her. She has three children who love her. The other family members have accepted her as one of them. And all of them live without any particular trouble from outside while immersed in the sumptuousness reminiscent of Luchino Visconti’s exquisite movies. Thanks to their family business, a very respectable textile company well known even outside Italy, they live in quite a comfortable and expensive modern manor while wearing the nice-looking costumes by Antonella Cannarozzi, who is recently Oscar-nominated for this movie. As many critics have pointed out, it must not be a coincidence that the name of Emma’s husband is Tancredi, one of central characters in Visconti’s great movie “The Leopard”.
That unforgettably elegiac masterpiece is about the transition between generations coupled with inevitable deteriorations and changes, and so is “I Am Love”. After the beautiful opening scene showing the quiet streets of Milan on one winter day with agitatedly repeated rhythms of John Adams’ score, we see the family meeting being prepared in the manor. It is the birthday dinner for her father-in-law, and, as a hostess, Emma checks several things including the table arrangement while going around the house.
Her father-in-law, Edoardo Sr.(Gabriele Ferzetti), has run the family business for many years. He hopes the empire he has built to reign forever, and, knowing that his time is near, he announces his decision at the middle of the birthday dinner. He will retire from his work and will soon hand over his position to his son. And Edoardo Jr.(Flavio Parenti), his grandson and Emma’s first son, will be No.2 of the company. Few months after, as he wishes, the company is run by Tancredi and Edoardo after Edoardo Sr.’s death.
But the future of his company and the Recchis will be not as he has wanted – or he has ever imagined. Tancredi has different ideas about how to take care of the family business. Edoardo does not like it because he knows his grandfather would not have approved it, but he is more interested in the restaurant business he is planning with his chef friend. In case of Elisabetta(Alba Rohrwacher), Emma’s lovely daughter, she finds that she is a lesbian while attending an art school in London. Emma discovers her daughter’s sexuality by accident, and her daughter comes out to her mother without much hesitation. From her daughter who actively pursues for her own happiness, Emma begins to see the desire for happiness inside her. Confined in a comfortable world with little to complain about, she has been content with her role in the Recchis, but now, the desire is awakened and begins to grow.
Not long after that, the fate finds a right object for her yearning, and it is none other than Antonio(Edoardo Gabbriellini), Edoardo’s chef friend whose excellent professional skill gives us one of the most electrifying scenes associated with certain sensory neurons I have seen recently. Except background dialogues, there is almost no word, but what Emma feels is evidently conveyed to us. It is quite enthralling, and you’ve got to see it for yourself. You will be wholly convinced that it must be like heaven for her.
Emma finds herself drawn to Antonio after that epiphanic moment. One day, when she goes to Sanremo to see her daughter, she sees him while walking around the streets. Soon, she hesitatingly follows him without noticed by him. Eventually, she goes to his restaurant outside the city with him. It is the quiet, bucolic country on a sunny day, and they are alone, and….
I don’t have to tell you what happens next or what consequences will be waiting for them and the people surrounding them for the story is quite familiar from the beginning. The director/co-writer Luca Guadagnino fills this typical story with arrestingly beautiful moments with delicate precision, and the movie is great to look at. While courteously following that sumptuous style of Visconti’s movies, Guadagnino infuses his own sensitive style into his film. There several scenes where what characters feels or realizes are captured and delivered accurately to our eyes even without many dialogues. In addition, the characters are not only nicely dressed but also very interesting characters with intriguing interactions between them. Tancredi is not a lousy husband, but his attitude to his wife is as loving as his feeling to the artworks he collects. It is implied but never said that Edoardo has certain personal motives for pushing his private business with his friend, and that complicates the situation more later. And we also have distant but generous mother-in-law(Marisa Berenson), and a middle-aged maid named Ida(Maria Paiato), who turns out to be more devoted than we thought.
And everything is supported by Tilda Swinton’s another knockout performance which is sadly not Oscar-nominated for Best Actress in this year. Swinton has been continuously an interesting actress, and, even after winning the Academy Award for her neurotic supporting turn in “Michael Clayton”(2007), she keeps giving us stellar performances from challenging roles. For example, in “Julia”(2008), she dashed into a very unlikable character many actresses would have hesitated to accept, and she succeeded with one of best performances in her career.
“I Am Love” provides another challenging role to Swinton, and, again, her performance is nearly flawless in many aspects. She masterfully plays the character who has been assimilated into the world that was foreign to her at first time, and her delivery of Italian dialogues with Russian accent is so natural that it draws our attention as little as the characters’ in the movie. Swinton is also very good at embodying thoughts and emotions without showing them off. We always know what she feels throughout the movie while guided by John Adams’ wonderful score, which is mostly based on his previous works.
The movie is a fabulous visual experience with terrific lead performance by Swinton as its heart. A stylishly and melodramatically overblown finale with equally bombastic music never feels out of place because of that. And beneath its impressive style and atmosphere, it understands the inner working of human hearts. Even when they are conscious of what is going on inside themselves, people are helplessly swept by what they feel for their heart like to be happy. Well, who can stop that? It’s as unstoppable as the nature.
Footnote: The film was released in South Korea in last weekend. I heard that the video quality was quite crude due to the local distribution company’s blunder. I saw the movie in HD last year, so I know how damaging that problem will be for enjoying it. As one of critics said, let’s hope they will release the movie on Blu-ray.