I Am Love (Io sono l’amore)
Italy (2009) Dir. Luca Guadagnino
The complex personal lives of the affluent Recchi family of Milan come under scrutiny following a tense birthday dinner party thrown for ailing patriarch Edoardo Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti). Grandson Edoardo (Edo) Jr (Flavio Parenti) lost a race earlier in the day to humble chef Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), who shows up with a cake as a gift to Edo’s grandfather. Edo’s mother, Russian born Emma (Tilda Swinton) is introduced to Antonio and a spark is suddenly ignited within her, leading to an unexpected affair which has far reaching and tragic consequences for the family.
Looking to resurrect the high drama of Italian cinema from yesteryear Luca Guadagnino brings us this family tragedy that is high on visual splendour but low on viewer engagement on both an emotional and entertainment front, at least for this writer. It’s not that there is anything essentially wrong with this film but it offers little that is fresh or unique on the story front with tropes and situations that everyone will recognise, and the developments often feeling contrived and familiar.
Making the family fortune in textiles Edoardo Sr announces at his birthday dinner that his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and Edo are to take over the family business; so the first thing they do is negotiate to sell the business off. Meanwhile, Edo is set to marry fellow rich girl Eva (Diane Fleri) and plans to set up a restaurant with Antonio on the San Remo property of Antonio’s father. Then there is only daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher), or Betta for short, who upsets her grandfather by presenting him with a photograph instead of a painting for his birthday as per the family tradition. Betta also has a secret which will certainly shock the socks of her grandfather which Emma discovers by accident – Betta is a lesbian!!
While Tancredi and Edo are in London to sell the family business the torrid affair of Emma and Antonio begins in earnest in the mountains where Antonio grows his own vegetables. We enter Lady Chatterley territory as the refined and affluent Emma gets stuck in with the hard labour of veggie picking as well as getting stuck in with the hard labourer. Emma comes from humble origins in Russia before Tancredi scooped her up and brought her to Italy, where she slowly acclimatised to the new surroundings and bourgeois lifestyle. Like many kept women, the ennui sets in now the kids have all grown up and Antonio represents not just an exciting future prospect but also a way to reclaim a fragment of her past.
The clash between past and future is a central theme of the film, with the modern generation flying in the face of the older generation, albeit under the radar for fear of causing any uproar. Emma therefore is caught between the two as her fling with Antonio gives her new lease of life while she maintains the status quo to please her husband. The one constant that Emma can rely on is her loyal maid Ida (Maria Paiato) who twigs what is going on with her mistress but supports her with the utmost discretion through to the end. Ironically, Ida also represents the holding on to safe routines and fixed ideals, insisting on knowing her place as a servant when Emma invites her to dine with her.
Emma’s fascination and attraction to Antonio is well documented in the film while the reverse isn’t made so clear. We don’t see any reason why Antonio should be attracted to Emma but he is. But when they do get together sparks do fly and the screen gets steamy with some very arty sex scenes that not so much titillate as create titters, with the intercut shots of insects pollinating flowers and other metaphoric gems. There is also nothing particularly arousing about the extreme close-ups of their sweaty bodies as they bonk in the midday sun out on the grass with dirt and bugs sticking to their bodies either. I’m sure many will find huge artistic merit in these scenes and applaud Guadagnino for his imagination and boldness but it sadly feels so indulgent and unconvincing.
A similar scene which is a more effective plays into the film’s other recurring motif of food. Prior to the affair when Emma is enjoying a prawn lunch made for her by Antonio, each bite of this lovingly prepared repast overwhelms her with orgasmic pleasure and again, Guadagnino takes us into the heart of the moment with extreme close ups of La Swinton’s mouth and glazed over eyes. Such use of artistic and esoteric camerawork to illustrate his point, or used just for the sake of it appears to be Guadagnino’s modus operandi for this film which again, will either delight on annoy the viewer as is their wont. When the shots are good they are sumptuous sights of beauty and composition; when they are off kilter, badly cropped or heavily obscured you can hear a million other directors across the film industry forming a lynch mob.
The performances at least can’t be faulted, headed by Tilda Swinton, who is pitch perfect here and adapts to every aspect of her role with her usual chameleon like skill. However, for me, she has this eerie, unearthly quality about her appearance which makes her the most unlikely and improbable object of sexual attraction, and from that perspective an odd choice for such a glamorous role. Others I am sure will disagree. Also the likeness between Alba Rohrwacher as daughter Betta is sublime and deserves kudos for that bit of casting.
I Am Love is a pure arthouse take on a mainstream convention that will polarise audiences who will either love its daring take on the family drama or find this an empty and distant but good looking film. I unfortunately side with the latter.