Review: I Am Love (2009)

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Cast: Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Edoardo Gabbriellini
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Country: Italy
Genre: Drama | Romance
Official Trailer: Here


A look at the life of the wealthy Recchi family at a time of transition, Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love is a florid portrait of shifting social attitudes in Italian society, epitomised in the microcosmic world of this dynastic household. Headed by the aging Edoardo Sr, the family has built a considerable fortune in textiles over many decades in Milan. Joining the Recchis as their patriarch announces his retirement and successors, the film follows the developments which spring from the sudden change in the family pecking order. For its opening thirty minutes, I Am Love seems angled toward a cross between La Règle du Jeu and Festen, the distinct undercurrent of social injustice of the former and the seething familial tensions of the latter equally evident in a grandiose birthday party scene. The startling contrasts between the darkness of the kitchen and the lavish extravagance of the dining room seem an incarnation of the same sardonic juxtaposition of Renoir’s film, but Guadagnino eventually shies away from such a derivative amalgamated approach to establish for his film its own identity. I Am Love employs the bourgeoisie family at its core not to explore ideas of injustice in society, but rather to examine the gulf enforced between tradition in our culture and the self-fulfilment it can often deprive us of.

I Am Love employs the bourgeoisie family at its core not to explore ideas of injustice in society, but rather to examine the gulf enforced between tradition in our culture and the self-fulfilment it can often deprive us of.

This is a film steeped in the patriarchal conservatism of not just Italian society, but of all throughout the world. From the pleasingly throwback opening credits that evoke a sense of antiquity to the hierarchical structure of the dining table seating arrangements, I Am Love reflects the dated traditionalism of these characters’ lives. The burden of expectation hangs heavy upon Edoardo, whose loss of a sailing regatta on the morning of his grandfather’s birthday drives the retiring industry captain to constantly criticise him for destroying the family’s athletic reputation. Betta, Edoardo’s sister, disappoints her grandfather by presenting him with a photograph rather than a painting as a gift; her desire to move from the older form of expression to the more distinctly modern is met with antagonism from the old man. The three generations of this family convey the evolution of the world’s societies, from the old-fashioned sensibilities of Edoardo Sr to the considerably freer more progressive mentality of his grandchildren. Where I Am Love really finds something substantial to say, however, is in the generation between, specifically in Edoardo and Betta’s mother Emma.

Certainly the core of the film in terms both narrative and emotional, Emma is caught between the new world and the old, torn between the comfort of the life she knows and the dynamic new possibilities of an ever broadening society free of self-repression, indeed self-oppression. Tilda Swinton assumes the role comfortably, bringing to her character an eminent strength and sympathy that makes identification with her virtually impossible to resist. She is a remarkably assured performer, consigning the majority of Emma’s emotional reaction to her penetrating eyes. To follow her character arc as realised in Swinton’s performance is to be enveloped in a person more real and developed than many of those around us. Guadagnino shoots her wandering amidst the walkways and buttresses of the Duomo di Milano, the sharp angles of the concrete seeming to box her in, a brilliant visual externalisation of the rigid structure her life has been assigned. There is a beautiful dream sequence where the camera seems to rise from her and float out her bedroom window through the heavy curtains to the night sky beyond, casting her adrift a stunning sequence of natural images and the implied freedom of the wider world. She finds herself fantasising of an affair with her son’s friend Antonio; it leads to what must be one of the most stunningly sensuous and passionate sex scenes since cinema’s beginnings. It is often difficult to invest much compassion in a character of such fantastic wealth as Swinton’s, but the radiance of her transformation is so overpoweringly immense that one cannot help but be moved.

It is often difficult to invest much compassion in a character of such fantastic wealth as Swinton’s, but the radiance of her transformation is so overpoweringly immense that one cannot help but be moved.

It is not only in his framing of Swinton that Guadagnino’s direction excels. He uses the lavish interiors of the familial home to great effect, the height of their ceilings and breadth of their floors suggesting a vacuity of sorts to this existence. He is smart enough to resist express condemnation of the upper classes though, focusing more on the representational function of the family than viewing them as an embodiment of gross wealth. There are certain particularly interesting stylistic flourishes he adopts, perhps most notably a scene where Emma discovers a postcard written to her daughter by a new lover: a woman. This accidental discovery of Betta’s lesbianism yields a scene where her girlfriend happily laughs at the camera, bathed in a soft focus light that seems almost to sanctify her. Such sexual freedom is alien to the conceptions of the old system of thought; it is clear from the way Guadagnino shoots Emma’s vision of this woman that the idea is to her idyllic in its departure from prior social norms. Another scene in which Emma eats a dish prepared by Antonio showcases the beauty and aplomb of the director’s aesthetic, all sounds fading to allow the camera’s full revelling in the splendour of Swinton’s face consumed with pleasure. Guadagnino is evidently highly verbose in the language of cinema, his visuals speaking volumes where his characters remain silent.

John Adams’ score, assembled from pieces previously composed, lends an epic quantity of grand emotion, though it has a tendency to lean toward melodrama. It fits impressively well for the vast majority of scenes, but there are moments where it seems to veer into histrionic territory and threaten the sincerity of the film’s own impact. No more so is this evident than in the film’s sadly misguided conclusion, an overzealous burst of theatrics that undermines the inherent power of the finale’s writing. It should be noted that the lugubriousness of these final moments is, to a degree, an intentionally overblown detachment from the intense reservation of the bourgeoisie halls’ cold emptiness for the purpose of stark contrast, but it comes across as overbearing and distracting. It’s far from the kind of issue that might derail the film, but it is a problem that seems to leave the message feeling a little overdone.

A superbly directed social drama, I Am Love may fall prey to a problematic tonal erraticism toward its conclusion, but it remains a resplendent and elegant visual treat enshrouding a detailed character study. Swinton has scarcely been better, and the combination of her subtle but striking performance and the richly coloured radiance of Guadagnino’s direction makes I Am Love a tender and uplifting look at the changes in our world and the way they affect our lives. A powerful film of charged emotion, rendered in painterly palettes that favour visual cues over dialogue-based exposition, it is a splendid cinematic experience, a supreme example of the use to which the medium can be put.

[notification type=”star”]83/100 ~ GREAT. A superbly directed social melodrama, I Am Love may fall prey to a problematic tonal erraticism toward its conclusion, but it remains a resplendent and elegant visual treat enshrouding a detailed character study.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.