There is a scene half way through the film where Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton) is served prawn and ratatouille for lunch by the chef Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). So entranced is she by the look, the aroma, the flavours of the dish that she soon is lost in her meal, as if in a passionate, erotic exchange with Antonio himself. So palpable is the sexual energy in the scene that you can almost experience her agony and her ecstasy. The camera alternates between her eyes, her mouth and the dish itself. The food here as a metaphor for sex is used so beautifully, it would qualify, according to me, as one of the best sex scenes in cinema in recent years.
Every once in a while there comes a film that challenges your assumptions about films. After writing about movies for 3 years, I firmly believed that, in any great film, the script was paramount. A film I Am Love makes me rethink such axiomatic beliefs. Its story is pure soap opera and its script is only so-so. However, the distinct visual style of director Luca Guadagnino and the performance of Tilda Swinton elevate the film to an insightful meditation on life, identity, loss, love and relationships.
The story is of the Recchi family, an Italian business family that has made its fortunes in manufacturing textiles, set in Milan at the turn of the 20th century. On his birthday, the patriarch of the family appoints his eldest son, Trancedi and (unexpectedly) his grandson, Edoardo Jr. (Flavio Parenti) as his successors. Trancedi’s wife is the Russian Emma who plays the part of a good wife and loving mother. Emma struggles with her daughter’s homosexuality and a strong sexual attraction she feels for Antonio, a chef and her son’s best friend. Meanwhile, Edoardo struggles with his father’s decision to sell the family business. These forces threaten to tear the family apart and force Emma to rethink her roles.
As a story, the film appears like pure formula and reminds you of several similarly themed films from Bridges of Madison County to the more recent Private Lives of Pippa Lee. However, the similarity ends here and I Am Love could not be more different from the aforementioned films. For director Guadagnino treats the film in a unique manner by using the visuals to convey the emotions and the complexities rather than the dialogue. In doing so, he manages to provide unexpected depth and gravitas to the film. He treats the viewer like an outsider and gives a whole lot of visuals to interpret. It is a love letter to the city of Milan and the retro feel to it from start to finish fits the film's mood and tone perfectly. To fully understand these characters and appreciate their world, you need to watch the camera movements, the angles and the editing carefully.
Take for instance, the opening scenes. These are crucial to understand Emma and the people who inhabit her world. Italian family lunches, I have on good authority, are a long affair worthy of sociological study. Here, as the camera cuts between the preparations for the lunch, the interiors of the house, the people who inhabit it, you see the cold precision of the preparation, the high fashion, the bourgeoisie attitude and the condescension. The icy inhabitants are juxtaposed beautifully to the warm, lush, maroon and mahogany interiors. The customs, the traditions and the hypocrisies are all on display. A glance here and a gesture there is enough to reveal this. But to notice, you need to give your undivided attention. This visual style is what sets the film apart.
Coming to the performances, has there been a more exquisite, delicate and powerful performance than Tilda Swinton’s realisation of Emma this year? I don’t think so. The film would have very easily collapsed into a montage of amazing but disjointed visuals without her strong central performance. It would not be incorrect to say that if the director provides flamboyance to this film, Swinton anchors it. How many English speaking actresses can feign ignorance of the language on screen and look completely natural? Definitely my favourite performance of the year so far, she brings a quiet force to her elegance. From start to end, you see her character undergo a transformation from a good natured trophy wife enslaved by the norms of high society to a passionate, free woman choosing life over all else. Swinton embodies that transformation effortlessly. She chooses wisely by trading outbursts for simmering emotions beneath that calm surface. Sure, there are good supporting performances. But the enterprise rests on Tilda Swinton; and she delivers the most natural performance of the year.
Swinton and Guadagnino combine their styles to give a richly textured drama with multiple layers. As you peel away layer by layer, you realise that this film is not just about infidelity. It is a comment on class, social standing and the claustrophobia that comes with it. This is what great cinema is about. It isn’t just about the words. It is about the visuals. It’s about giving that unique insight even in the most routine stories. And that is where I Am Love succeeds greatly. For the patient, this is emotionally one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences you will see this year.