I Am Love is a feast for the senses. The partnership between Luca Guadagnino and Tilda Swinton creates the perfect dish in this capolavoro of Italian cinema.
That’s Amore by Laura Bennett
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Truly “Made-in-Italy” I Am Love (Io Sono L’Amore) is a showcase for all that is inspirational about the peninsular nation. In the grand tradition of a fine Renaissance painting, a mouth-watering antipasto or the exquisite craftsmanship of a handmade leather purse, the film’s attention to detail is breathtaking. This third collaboration between Luca Guadagnino and Tilda Swinton has been a decade in the making and it shows.
The flawless, studied acting effortlessly draws the audience into the precise milieu of a wealthy Milanese family. Swinton delivers a graceful performance in the role that was written for her. Her languid linguistic prowess is astonishing as she flows effortlessly from Italian into Russian, her beauty elegantly echoing a Parmigianino Madonna.
Swinton’s character, Emma Recchi, a Russian by birth, was acquired by her Italian cloth-magnate husband on an art-buying trip to Russia. Having given him three children, she seemingly plays the role of corporate wife without question. On meeting Antonio, a chef and friend of her elder son Edoardo, she begins to undergo an awakening that will turn her family upside down and result in a tragedy dividing them all. As she embarks on a passionate relationship with Antonio, Emma is released from the shackles that held her. The luxurious, hard-edged, Art-Deco styled house which had become her prison is exchanged for the boundless wide-open spaces of the colourful Ligurian campagna; her immaculate pastel-coloured Armani dresses and richly understated designer accessories are swapped for baggy, faded, country clothes. In a move that ultimately leads to the film’s final tragedy, she also allows her lover to roughly chop her hair, further throwing off the bonds of her previous, buttoned-up, manicured existence.
Simple pleasures arouse most passion in Italy. Food plays a sensuous and pivotal role in I Am Love. The taciturn, earthy and hirsute Antonio seduces Emma with his food. Emma can only marvel at the talents of this young chef. While dining at his restaurant with her mother-in-law, social doyenne Rori, and her soon to be daughter-in-law, social climber Eva, she loses herself in a wonderful reverie induced by an exquisite prawn dish. Antonio’s cucina deliziosissima is already starting to distance her from the world of ladies-who-lunch.
During one of their idyllic encounters at Antonio’s countryside house Emma teaches him the recipe for one of the last vestiges of her Russian-ness and a childhood favourite of Edoardo’s, a delicately transparent fish soup called oucha. When Antonio serves up the soup at an important business dinner attended by the whole Recchi family, a Last Supper heavy with emotion, Edoardo’s growing suspicions are confirmed. The final realisation that he has been betrayed by his mother and his best friend, the two people he counted on most in a world in which he was feeling increasingly isolated and ill at ease, sparks a furious row that can only end badly.
Emma and Antonio’s love is one that, once let out of the bottle, tears lives apart yet simply can not be recaptured. The world of the powerful Recchi family is one of control and conformity. Passion is a weakness not to be tolerated in this atmosphere of monochrome restraint. Emma’s daughter, Betta, escapes to London to explore her artistic creativity and to come to terms with her fomenting feelings of lesbianism. Emma’s Russian otherness meets with Antonio’s lust for food to explode into what Guadagnino describes as social melodrama. Melodramatic it may be, melancholic it is not. Against all probability, the film ends with a faint spark of hope that the love responsible for destroying so much may well continue, as Emma and Antonio are reunited in a post-Recchi world.
In many ways I Am Love is a clarion call for a return to days of classic Italian cinema. The exquisite, elaborate, considered creation of a specific microcosm of society is strongly reminiscent of Visconti’s The Leopard as the characters stalk about the set but never quite manage to connect with it. Swinton also acknowledges the film’s debt to Senso, drawing parallels between Emma and Livia for their radical inability to fit into their surroundings. I Am Love also recalls Pasolini’s turbulent, dialogue-light Teorema where the arrival of Terence Stamp’s cocksure stranger is enough to send the lives of another upper-class Milanese family into disarray.
Not for Guadagnino the bloodstained streets of mafia-ridden Naples, nor the rehashings of well-worn, wartime partisan tales comprising so much of Italy’s recent cinematic offerings; nor is I Am Love art for art’s sake. In these challenging times, capitalism is alive and well in Italy but formerly important families such as Fiat’s elegant Agnellis have ceded their role to the brashness of the Berlusconis. Like the characters in Visconti’s Leopard does the world portrayed in I Am Love have a short shelf-life? Wherever the capitalists and the politicians take this beautiful and creative nation, its century’s old artistry is safe and well in Guadagnino’s hands.
I Am Love is released in the UK on 9th April 2010.