I Am Love, melodrama, rated R, in Italian with subtitles, Regal DeVargas, 3.5 chiles
Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton) is not so much a trophy wife as an objet d’art. Collected by her wealthy Italian husband Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) on an art-buying tour of Russia, she has become the perfect Milanese matron, mother of three Recchi heirs, CEO of a perfectly functioning household, and consummate hostess whose eye is on the sparrow of minutest detail.
But in Luca Guadagnino’s exquisite tale of dormant passion awakened, change is the only constant. Emma has morphed beyond recognition from the Russian girl she was; even her original name has been discarded. But to believe that things stop moving once we think we have them right is to be blinded by hubris. Every breath, every tick of the clock brings change.
The sands are already shifting in the opening scene, where we see the preparations for a sumptuous formal banquet to celebrate the birthday of the family’s aging patriarch, Edoardo Recchi Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti). The camera moves from the soft gray cold of a Milan under a blanket of snow to the brittle warmth of the Recchi mansion, a magic kingdom of luxury and privilege. Before
I Am Love,
continued from Page 64 the soup is served, we learn that young Edoardo Jr. (Flavio Parenti), the eldest son of Emma and Tancredi, has lost a race, presumably a foot race, that afternoon. Edo never loses. Recchis never lose. It’s a mildly stunning development, a crack in the wall of privileged invincibility, though Edo shrugs it off with graceful good humor.
Even the guy who won the race seems overwhelmed. He is a young chef, and he arrives at the door of the mansion that evening with a cake he has baked for Edo as a gesture of apology. More of him in a moment.
The next item on the menu of change is expected, but the flavor of the dish turns out to be a shocker. Edoardo Sr., as expected, announces his retirement as head of the family textile empire. But he does not, as expected, hand the reins to Tancredi alone. “It will take two men to replace me,” the patriarch announces with smug self-satisfaction, and splits the crown between his son and his oldest grandson. The older man has experience and a head for business. The younger one has ideals. It’s an unpredictable mixture.
Nothing stays the same. Change arrives on all levels. There is death and conception. The daughter (Alba Rohrwacher) changes her artistic medium from drawing to photography and her sexual preference from men to women. The Recchi empire is drawn toward the cold embrace of globalization. Emma cuts her hair. And on, and on.
But the truly momentous upheaval comes when Emma bites into a shrimp. It has been prepared for her by Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), the fleet-footed chef who has become a friend and prospective business partner of young Edo. The flame is first kindled when Antonio, with the time-honored embrace of a tennis pro instructing a palpitating lady pupil, shows Emma how to use a culinary torch. But it is when she tastes that shrimp that Emma’s emotional climate change is fully triggered. Her eyes close, her breast swells, color tinges her pallid cheeks, a look of pure rapture steals over her face, her heart races, her thighs unclench, the lighting changes, the music swells, the world recedes. I want that recipe.
It is not just in men, it turns out, that the stomach provides a shortcut to the heart. From this moment on, Emma is a woman reborn, and it is only a matter of time before her inhibitions, her clothes, and her carefully constructed world come tumbling down.
Antonio is not exactly a hunk. He’s sensitive and talented, but the point is that it is his ability to ignite the soul through the palate that opens Emma like a blossom. In this exquisite tale of dormant passion awakened, change is
the only constant.
Much has been made by critics of the director’s indebtedness to Italian masters like De Sica, Pasolini, and especially Visconti. He uses a powerful John Adams score to caress and to lash, and there are scenes where the music wades in with the force of a character. The camera work is sumptuous (and how should it be otherwise, with a cinematographer gloriously named Yorick Le Saux). Guadagnino molds these images into tableaux that are as cool and formal as Renaissance paintings in the first part of the movie and that loosen and sprawl as the story takes its tumble into the maelstrom of emotional and sexual release, and moves from the Milan mansion to a Ligurian meadow for love among the birds and the bees. As Emma writhes naked beneath the fierce Mediterranean sun, concerned murmurs of “sunblock!” will ripple through the house.
Swinton (who also produced) dominates the movie. Speaking in an elegantly Russian-inflected Italian, she runs the household and the family with the authority of a general and the passion of an accountant. When the first shock waves of change hit her, she absorbs them internally; very little shows on the surface, but there’s a lot happening just out of sight. She’s an actress whose every film seems to have critics declaring it her best performance and the role she has been waiting for.
There is no getting around the fact that this is elegant soap opera, with the soaring emotional sweep of a Douglas Sirk melodrama. It won’t appeal to every taste. But it’s sensational to look at and powerfully acted, and it delivers a bang for the emotional buck.
A new day prawning: Tilda Swinton and Mattia Zaccaro