"I Am Love"
A film review by Jordan Overstreet
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Producer(s): The Works International
Screenplay: Luca Guadagnino and Barbara Alberti
Main players: Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Edoardo Gabberiellini, Alba Rohrwacher, Pippo Delbono, and Marisa Berenson
With the divorce rate at fifty percent, the odds these days for a successful loving relationship are realistically slim to none. Perhaps Billy Wilder was right and the seven-year itch does exist, making monogamous relationships a thing of the past. Could Joseph Smith have stumbled upon the secret to a successful union? While the acquisition of long prairie skirts, a Gibson girl up-doo, and sister-wives remain taboos in my mind, could it really take more than two to tango? Katie Roiphe investigates if three really can be a company in a recent Harper’s Bazaar article entitled, “Liberated in Love: Can Open Marriage Work.” In her analysis, Roiphe exposes actress Tilda Swinton as practitioner of open marriage. This revelation about Luca Guadagnino’s leading lady in his recent Italian drama, “I Am Love,” brings an interesting contrast to the sheltered and very domesticated housewife Swinton portrays.
Layered with traditional opening credits, “I Am Love” begins with a tour of Milan in winter. The industrial capital of Italy is unrecognizable; it looks more like an Eastern European country or even a city in Russia. The presentation of the title credits and the traditional lettering invite the audience to return to an older era of women’s films starring the likes of Ingrid Bergman or Deborah Kerr, which used the romance of an extra-marital affair as a means for sending the leading lady on a voyage of self-discovery. Guadagnino introduces us to his protagonist, Emma Recchi (Swinton), a middle-aged woman of Russian decent who has married into the prominent Italian business family, the Reechis. When we first meet Emma, her servants surround her in her kitchen, evoking an image of Italian domesticity that implies Emma’s struggle to emulate the ideal Italian wife. She speaks perfect Italian, hosts the family dinner soirees, and never graces the screen in anything but a Chanel shift dress with a coordinating quilted tote in hand. As a mother of two grown children, Edo and Betta Reechi (Flavio Parenti and Alba Rohrwacher), Emma’s only outlet for expressing her Russian heritage is through the art of cooking (she is known for her of a traditional Russian fish soup which becomes the indicator of her deceit). Edo develops a strong friendship with a chef, Antonio Biscaglia (Edo Gabberiellini), and the two decide to open a restaurant. When Emma encounters Antonio for the first time, there is a flirtation; however, once Emma tastes Antonio’s cuisine, an intense--almost lightning striking--attraction exists between the two. This attraction is further bolstered when Emma’s immediate family flees to London (Betta to study and them men on urgent business) leaving her to travel alone to the Italian Riviera where she unexpectedly runs into Antonio during a shopping excursion. This chance meeting leads Antonio to extend an invitation to Emma to return with him to his home. Once inside, Emma strips off her clothing, freeing herself from her responsibilities as their two intensities unite; this transgression of her marital bond has serious consequences.
Swinton, despite being an Englishwoman, is very much at home in this Italian drama. The language rolls off her tongue with ease and her seven years of dedication to Guadagnino’s project has paid off. With recent credits including Michael Clayton and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Swinton continues to deliver with her various presentations of femininity. Her “Emma” reminds me of a Virginia Woolf heroine trapped in her daily domestic routine; furthermore, Swinton’s performance taps into the Wollstonecraftian school of thought regarding the rights of woman. When Swinton’s long strawberry locks are cut by her lover, we attribute this change in her appearance to signify her awakening and development of her own persona independent of her husband, Tancredi Reechi (Pippo Delbono). Swinton’s performance will surely be remembered come Oscar time. Unfortunately, I cannot see the same fate for the rest of the cast, all of which do their best despite the shortcomings of Guadagnino’s script.
However, the most compelling supporting performance comes from Alba Rohrwacher who plays Emma’s lesbian daughter, Betta. After an affair with a female professor at art school in London, Betta returns home with a pixie haircut and a new sexual preference. When she shares her self-awakening with her mother, Emma responds warmly and supports Betta’s transformation. The physical similarities between Rohrwacher and Swinton are unreal. It is almost as if Betta is the version of Emma that she could have become if she had not given up her identity to fit the Italian mold for women. There is an understanding between the two women, and when Emma ultimately leaves the family, Betta is the only one who can understand her mother’s flight.
What the film lacks in dialogue, it makes up in its presentation. Directorially speaking, Guadagnino soars as her presents love through the five senses. We see love through the dream sequences Emma experiences; we taste love as Emma devours Antonio’s entrees; we smell love when Antonio inhales Emma’s perfume; we feel love as Antonio and Emma passionately embrace; yet, the most profound sense Guadagnino allows the audience to experience is the sounds of love we hear through John Addams magnificent score.
“I Am Love” has recently been picked up by Sony Pictures Classic and is set to open in the United States in June. Despite the Italian language, I am sure Swinton will pack the art house cinema, allowing audience members to explore their own marriages and understand the dynamic that exists.