I am Love (Luca Guadagnino, 2009): Italy

Reviewed by Nitsa Pomerleau. Viewed at the Santa Barbara Film Festival 2010.

I am Love (Io sono l’amore) is a serenade to the bourgeoisie of 21st century Milan. In this film director Luca Guadagnino builds a romance of indulgence and suppression that is, simply, operatic.

The film opens to a snow-covered Milan and credits evoking the 1950s classics. With the elegant transparency of a dinner party, we are introduced to the Recchis, a clan of Italian aristocracy quietly straining under the tensions of family business and conventional monotony. Brooding over their art-deco villa is Emma Recchi (played by the lovely Tilda Swinton). As her family disperses to work and study, Emma is drawn to her son’s friend Antonio, a talented chef who grows his own vegetables in the Italian countryside and prepares to open a restaurant amongst the olive trees and blossoming ginestra of Sanremo (Bottom Line: yum! yum! yum!).

Aesthetics run high in I am Love. The film unfolds at a distinctly European  pace and is held within a tone of constrained yet suspenseful melodrama. Every frame is suffused with subtle intention and exquisite art direction (Fendi did the costumes, which, added to the fact that they were worn by Tilda Swinton pretty much made me drool for a full 2 hours). Communication occurs below the surface dialogue and within Guadagnino’s careful composition of scenes. To this effect, the cinematography is highly controlled: the camera pans and tilts with Swinton as she cuts a striking figure crossing the street and asscends a flight of crimson stairs. A single, straight shot of the dinner table splits open the viscera of the Recchi family. Liberties are also taken, as is shown in a love scene during which the camera teases the audience with close-ups of the trees, the soil, a flower, sky.  A plane flies overhead. Insects buzz. An expanse of pale skin fills the frame and we cannot tell exactly who and where it comes from…

Adding to the cinematic decadence is  the original music composed by pulitzer-winning  minimalist John Adams. His is a versatile score with an acute sense of irony. Adams (under Guadagnino’s direction) pairs light, playful melodies with the climactic scenes and intensely somber pieces with the banal. The effect: intoxicating.

But more intoxicating is Tilda Swinton . Throughout her performance as Emma Recchi, Swinton maintains a patrician veneer while embodying a range of emotion that is cathartic– and fluent in Russian and Italian! Interestingly, Emma is the only character Guadadigno fully develops, and we can attribute this to his muse-like collaboration with Swinton (who apparently worked with Guadadigno for 7 years on the project as actress and producer and who, I have discovered, inspired a documentary of his titled Tilda Swinton: The Love Factory).

It is appropriate to compare this film to a glass of wine, and I  do say I detect notes of Coppola, Hitchcock, and Altman (especially Gosford Park). Swinton, who has legacy of art house films, recently made a fashion short  (click here) with Ryan McGinley for the designer, Pringle of Scotland. It unabashedly lacks any tangible narrative or morals, the first of few lines of dialogue is “Insignificant images” and features Swinton running barefoot through Scottish forests in silk-gowned androgyny. This short is obviously a more ambiguous endeavor than I am Love, but the communication for both is at an aesthetic level, which I find to be an interesting direction (past and present) for film.

On a final note:

At the film’s end, the middle-aged woman I sat next to was in tears. She grabbed me by the wrist (for some reason middle-aged women are always doing this to me) and whispered “wow”. We then shared a moment of unspoken love for all things Italian and beautiful and a little bit tragic.

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