I Am Love (2010) is a film that operates on levels of intimacy very often in opposition, relying as much on the intricacies and nuances of minutiae as the impressionistic details of inner emotions intensely expressed by an elegant and precise visual style. One does not simply watch this film as take it in slowly, like breath, to experience and embrace as you would an epic journey where visual and aural detail is your guide. This is a film that languishes with a painterly pace, frequently if not oddly at times, pausing to gather light or reveal the interwoven lines of a building or the symbolism of a man and woman making love in a picturesque Milanese countryside. Artfully realized amid a grand and sweeping operatic story with complex, sophisticated characters, there is no mistaking this is a European art film informed by 11 years of percolating between star Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton, Julia) and writer-director Luca Guadagnino.
It is not surprising to find Tilda Swinton at the heart of this story, her intelligent rendering of inner feelings and specificity won her an academy award for Best Supporting Actress in Tony Gilroy’s 2007 film, Michael Clayton. She has collaborated with Guadagnino before and was heavily involved in the exploration of the story and character of Emma. She is capable in art-house and mainstream films and welcomes a kind of peculiarity that serves her well whether the character is a blind drunk alcoholic (Julia) or an overly ambitious attorney (Michael Clayton) Swinton the movie star seems OK with Swinton the actress. Born in London, England to a family of Anglo-Scots that can trace their lineage back to the High Middle Ages, she is celebrated for her fierce and truthful performances. She makes uncomfortable a subtle expression, quickly elegant and believable she leaves an indelible mark of fascinating impressions as if an echo that never truly fades but clamors to and from project with childlike enthusiasm. Swinton is an enigma most regularly, brandishing funny and heartfelt intensity; she describes her roles in American films as ‘speaking American’ as opposed to the Queen’s English. Among a handful of other languages she will admit to, she added Italian and Russian specifically for I Am Love.
The story opens with an elaborate, if not at times painstakingly slow-moving ceremonial succession where the patriarch of a wealthy Italian family steps down from command of their textile business. Amid the immediate change to the family hierarchy and subsequently their relationships, Guadagnino and Swinton are quick to delve into the personal where silence hides the longing for happiness but realizes its place there. This place is where the story lives and where love for the self collides with love for others. The family is very much defined by and held accountable to traditional roles and values without consideration for individuality and contentment. When Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton) the mother and her daughter, Elisabetta Recchi (Alba Rohrwacher) confront this middle ground they find their contradictory pursuits in direct conflict with their familial responsibilities and obligations. Emma, a foreign-born Russian woman, is locked in a relationship where she is both matriarch and caretaker, a wrangler of servants and of the served. When a chance encounter with an intriguing younger man becomes a pursuit of love and passion, she embarks down a path of reawakening that cannot be ascended. At the same time her daughter Elisabetta, stirring to her own identity and pursuits, resists the confines and prescribed place in the family as she embraces her love for another woman. Emma’s husband and son further the exploration of familial boundaries as they come to terms with the family business and struggle with the idea of remaining the same or changing forever. This polarity is a ripple current that rushes outward from the entire family, building momentum until dialogue falls to the wayside and the imagery invites us into a world of beauty and contempt where actions become the language of opposites.
At its essence this is a morality lesson of wins and losses perpetrated by characters at once caught in and ultimately defined by a departure from the confines of aristocracy and typified by the pursuit of the taboo. This is the story of unspoken agonies and personal disquiet as the lives of the Recchis’ teeter on a precipice of change where old and new, young and old, and love and tolerance are prepared like a meal for the senses as well as the heart. Food and landscape become metaphor for inescapable passion and dormant sexual awakening. But we are kept on the outside forced to look in, afforded a view of people and routine, of the served and the servers poised amid the sterility of the finest glass, wood, and stone confines. These people are as much defined by their spaces as contained by them. The ornate, chilly expanse of an isolated Milanese villa becomes the stage where servants swarm and the family toil beneath cool exteriors, the perfect setting for a passion play where there is no good and evil but rather actions and consequences. Here, preoccupied with proper conduct and formal order, stifled emotions inform choices and define for us the extent to which passion overcomes the grandest of obstacles.
I Am Love is an evocative and concentrated examination of the dramatic collision between the inner and outer lives of a family rooted in tradition and torn apart by desire. Guadagnino takes us to a place where the narrative tapestry of the story is very often visual rather than spoken, to a place where we begin to understand why, after years confined by an emotionless and loveless marriage, Emma follows her instinct for love without consideration for its effect on her family. Swinton’s performance is razor-sharp, sealed in silence at times, incalculably prosaic as the terrible consequences of Emma’s actions play out. This is not a film that will appeal to all audiences, though it is an undeniably effective tragedy in the purist sense that offers the patient viewer little glimpses of the indefinable boundaries of life and love. When the proper walls of her life begin to crumble and the façade gives way, it is Emma’s rediscovery of love that completes the narrative arc of both her character and the story. Where the film arrives and is perhaps most successful is in the subtle respect afforded by Guadagnino as he urges us nearest the finale where the imagery swells and reveals instinct and feelings without ever indulging in sentimentality.