I Am Love
Bursting with ‘Love’: From Tilda Swinton to Milan setting, this melodrama is filled with rapture
From its title on down, “I Am Love’’ swoons with glorious melodramatic overkill. (Actually, the title’s even better in the original Italian: “Io Sono L’Amore.’’ Try it on your honey, see what happens.) The film, directed by Luca Guadagnino, stars Tilda Swinton and the city of Milan, and it’s both insanely chic and over-the-top tempestuous — a sort of headlong “Lady Chatterley’s Lover’’ as reimagined by a consortium of top European design talent. If you’re not in the mood, the whole thing will probably seem pretty silly. But if you are — oh, if you are — “I Am Love’’ may be the richest, tastiest truffle you’re likely to savor all summer.
It’s a relief, too, to watch this star go buggy. Don’t get me wrong: Swinton — the ice queen of Narnia and the planet’s arthouses — is never less than mesmerizing, and the high-wire tension of her performances (that porcelain skin, the eyes that never blink) often leads to a brilliantly ugly snap. In “I Am Love,’’ Swinton does something new. She melts. The cause is twofold: A dish of prawns and the young chef who has prepared it.
Her character, Emma Recchi, is a haute bourgeois wife and mother in a prosperous manufacturing clan — the grandfather who founded the business (Gabriele Ferzetti) is around for the first few scenes and he’s a right old pirate. We learn at one point that Emma was born in Russia and married young, but everything specific about her has long since been smoothed away. She’s impeccably dressed and not expected to have a personality, and she’s very good at her job. Her husband Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), daughter Elizabetta (Alba Rohrwacher), and son Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) rely on Emma without ever actually seeing her.
The opening scenes take place in Milan in winter, with John Adams’s gorgeous minimalist score packing in the snow around the heroine’s heart. She’s briefly introduced to her son’s friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) and when they meet again, it’s spring, he’s catering a garden party, and the acetylene torch he’s wielding threatens to caramelize Emma in her expensive pumps. A little while later, dining with her mother-in-law (an imperious Marisa Berenson) and her son’s arriviste fiancée (Diane Fleri), she’s served that plate of prawns, and the movie stops in its tracks with ridiculous daring, muting the sound and raising the glow around Emma and her forkful. It’s love at first bite.
Everything about “I Am Love’’ is that rapturous; the movie demands to be seen on a screen big enough to contain its opulence and craft. The colors burst like overripe peaches and Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography doubles as a folio of high-end art prints. You could nestle for days in a shot of Emma climbing the dizzying Gothic parapets of the Duomo di Milano. The city’s strict architectural lines are contrasted with the heat and funk of San Remo, where Emma’s young lover is opening a restaurant up in the hills. The film builds to an al fresco sex scene that’s simultaneously erotic and ludicrous, the buzzing insects symbolizing nature’s abandon even as the audience yelps and swats the air.
Back in Milan, secrets leak and tempers flare: everyone’s lusting for forbidden fruit or dirty money. The husband wants to sell the family firm to a Sikh (Waris Ahluwalia) whose neo-global doubletalk hides a multitude of sins. Only Antonio sees Emma for who she is — a woman, a human, breaking through dead tradition to live in the moment. And only in this movie would narrative climax be triggered by the arrival of the soup course. Somewhere Douglas Sirk, the grand old man of Hollywood melodrama, is applauding, and so is Ferran Adria.
Swinton’s Emma is marvelous, foolhardy, delicate, and brave; through force of will, the actress transforms her character from upper-class furniture to a woman panting to catch her breath. “I Am Love’’ may be too much for some people, but isn’t that why we go to the movies and what we rarely get: Our feelings writ huge? The movie could be “Sex and the City’’ with clothes and emotions that are lived in rather than bought, or “Twilight’’ for grown-ups who dare to act and who know the real monsters live in our hearts. It is cinema as opera, and subtlety is for the weak.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.