Like the Fendi and Raf Simons (Jil Sander) fashions in which its characters are adorned, I Am Love is positively draped in elegance. The opening title sequence alone, a combination of lush cursive and cooly modern print over scenes of snowy Milan, urged along by the crisp, insistent rhythms of John Adams, is like an appetizer so rich you're not sure that you even need an entree.
Before big, black letters announced, "MILANO," I initially wondered if those wintry images might be of some modern Russian city, perhaps the home of I Am Love's main character, Emma Recchi (the ever-singular Tilda Swinton). But this is not sundrenched Tuscany, rather the darker, colder northern Italian center of fashion and commerce. As is the case with all representations of both nature and weather we see, frigid Milan mirrors the emotional winter in which Emma is living.
I Am Love is apparently the fruition of a long-nurtured idea on the part of Ms. Swinton and her friend, the director Luca Guadagnino, to modernize the melodrama. I wonder if they have somehow been missing the films of Pedro Almovodar. While it might not be his best work, certainly not his most daring, the Spaniard's most recent, Broken Embraces, seemed to me a director very much in control of what he was about, a 21st century successor to Douglas Sirk. I Am Love is in some ways a bolder effort, but it's not nearly as successful.
Despite the desire to construct a big story full of big emotions, the early scenes in I Am Love are impressive in their restraint. It's here that Mr. Guadagnino's script (actually, he's credited with the story and co-writing the script with two others) and direction are at their best. The camera certainly takes in many of the luxuries, those immaterial (the sheer space) and material. But we're also made aware of the tightly wound energy of the house, manifesting itself perhaps more in Emma - Swinton usually wearing an expression just this side of anxiety - than in the seasoned core of servants. We see the lavishness which might seduce an outsider, but also the wearying pressure to maintain the surface perfection. When Tancredi and Emma are together for the first time in the film, he's tellingly helping her put clothes on, assisting her with rings and bracelets as if girding her for battle.
A bit of armor is perhaps not a bad idea amongst the Recchi's, particularly when the formidable Edoardo Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti) and Allegra (a sleek, imperious Marisa Berenson), Tancredi's parents, are over for dinner, as is the case early on. Edoardo Sr., not only celebrating his birthday, but announcing his retirement and successor, walks around the dinner table like Robert DeNiro in The Untouchables; I wouldn't have been completely surprised if he had cracked someone over the head as well. Much to the chagrin of Tancredi, his father hands control of the family business to him and his more idealistic son, Edo. While this family drama quietly plays itself out - the old man's authority is such that Tancredi can but smile - a young stranger shows up at the front door, bearing a cake. This is Edo's friend, Antonio. He and Emma meet, not for the last time.
For those who come to I Am Love primarily as a chance to see Tilda Swinton work, the film can't really disappoint. Guagagnino has given her the best vehicle she's had for her rangy talents in years. As convincing as is that almost girlish giddiness , there is a later scene in which Emma looks positively transfigured by grief, the very structure of her face seemingly mutated by it. Swinton is nearly flawless.
Emma returns to Antonio as soon as she's able, and the two enjoy a kind of arcadian lovefest: they make love repeatedly; Emma doesn't figuratively let down her hair, Antonio actually cuts it for her; the two lay naked and talk; they cook together and later hike up a waterfall. As this all begins, Antonio slowly undresses her, an intended and sharp contrast to her husband, Tancredi, who is only seen helping her on with clothing.
As the successive sex scenes between the two go, so goes I Am Love. They start slowly, there's brief, lovely press of bodies in a shady cottage and then the festivites continue alfresco. The two lay in the grass to make love again. Limbs are seen moving in soft focus. Bees flit about, pollinating flowers. The music of John Adams churns. Limbs are seen moving in soft focus. Bees flit about, pollinating flowers. The music of John Adams churns. Limbs are seen moving in soft focus. Bees flit about, pollinating flowers. The music of John Adams churns. Limbs are seen...perhaps this would be a good time to run out for a soda?
It's very much in keeping with the general effort of I Am Love to ground images of emotion in the natural world. There's a kind of courage in that simplicity. But to choose such simple images, pair them such an adrenalized score and then, frankly, photograph those images in a less than original manner is an approach destined to fail with repetition.
Lost in the midst of all this passion is the fact that Antonio is not much more than a bearded cipher. We know that he's earnest, sensitive, and little else. When it fails, in story or characterization, I Am Love is like a richly painted series of movie backdrops behind which one finds scarcely little.
Despite having lost its way, I Am Love's pounding denoument is kind of riveting. Emma is seen on a square of gold carpet. It's a piece of flooring on which we have seen her from multiple perspectives, passing across in haste or seemingly confined within. She and Betta, the child bearing not only the strongest physical resemblance, but her kindred spirit, share a powerful, tacit exhange. Finally, when the camera returns a last time, the gold sqaure is empty, as if Emma has flown her particular gilded cage. All of this while the Adams' music has returned with a vengeance. Rousing stuff. And an hour later, I must say that I didn't feel a thing.