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For those perpetually longing to return to the days of Visconti, Fellini, and Bergman, have I got a film for you. I Am Love is glorious: everything about it is lush and larger than life, and even in moments when the plot drags and the pounding John Adams soundtrack pauses, the cinematography is breathtaking. As a whole, the film is as intoxicating as any of its arthouse forbears, and yet the intensity and pace of its narrative makes it feel updated and almost modern.
Tilda Swinton, who also produced and helped conceive the film with director Luca Guadagnino, stars as Emma Recchi, a Russian ex-pat who has married into a prestigious Milanese family. The story begins with a family dinner in which the patriarch, who is about to die, turns over the family textile business to Emma’s husband Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and son Edo (Flavio Parenti). Emma begins to realize, with her youngest child Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) going off to college, that her duties as a mother have been fulfilled, and she feels at sea as to what to do with herself next.
This being an Italian art film, naturally the next thing she does is fall wildly, passionately, inappropriately in love. Edo’s friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabriellini) is an ambitious young chef who shows up at the initial dinner party to drop off a cake he has made for the occasion. Emma is taken with him from the start; he’s a working-class boy who isn’t indoctrinated in the ways of the very rich, and he has a genuine talent. His character seems much more authentic than those of Emma’s two sons, or the rest of the men in the Recchi clan, all of whom seem overly focused on accumulating even more wealth than they already have. Antonio is focused on pleasure and beauty and Emma quickly becomes infatuated, even as she tries to deny it to herself.
Once she has a meal in his restaurant, though, Emma is a goner. As she savors her plate of beautifully prepared prawns, a warm golden light covers her and everything else in the restaurant goes dim. Guadagnino’s skill at visualizing Emma’s intense pleasure in this scene, and in the already infamous al fresco sex scenes later in the film, stays just this side of absurdity. Even though he takes every opportunity to make almost lurid comparisons between the writhing bodies and the bobbing flowers in Antonio’s field, somehow the film doesn’t feel self-indulgent or ridiculous. Rather, it’s contemplative in a way that very few films are these days. Occasionally we are treated to the opportunity to just stare at a piece of lovely Italian countryside or an ancient statue; the lens moves in and out of focus, dreamily, mirroring Emma’s ethereal rapture with this newfound secret life.
There’s a great tragedy at the end of the film, of course—Emma’s life is ruined, her affair comes out, and she is all but banished from the Recchi family. The film starts to feel like a grand Greek tragedy or perhaps a lost Merchant/Ivory film, with everything suddenly seeming pre-ordained and inescapable. However, instead of wilting in submission, Swinton’s Emma decides to leave the family on her own terms. As the soundtrack comes to a throbbing crescendo, we realize what Emma is really about to do is escape—escape from everything that has defined her existence for decades, and finally, for the first time, make a life for herself. And we can’t help but cheer her for it.
While some might not know what to make of I Am Love in this day and age, when it inhabits the same screen space as Sex and the City 2, I highly recommend it. As always, Tilda Swinton is captivating in every corner of her performance; the supporting cast, particularly Rohrwacher, all give dedicated performances as well. Even if you’ve never seen anything like it before—and you probably haven’t—giving yourself over to the film, as Emma does to her newfound zest for life, is simply thrilling.
I Am Love opened in the U.S. in limited release on June 18th.