Tilda Swinton stars, in every way, in I Am Love
by Molly Templeton
I AM LOVE: Directed by Luca Guadagnino. Screenplay by Guadagnino, Barbara Alberti, Ivan Cotroneo and Walter Fasano, based on a story by Luca Guadagnino. Cinematography, Yorick Le Saux. Editing, Walter Fasano. Music, John Adams. Starring Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Edoardo Gabbriellini, Alba Rohrwacher, Maria Paiato and Marisa Berenson. Magnolia Pictures, 2010. 120 minutes. R.
Sometimes you have to make an effort to see the movies Tilda Swinton carries with her lanky, malleable grace. Last year’s Julia, in which Swinton plays a self-destructive alcoholic who kidnaps a child, never showed here. Julia takes off from Swinton’s nervous, sweaty scenes in Michael Clayton and creates a whole movie from a similar sense of desperation and undone-ness; it’s miles from her Narnian ice queen or her frighteningly composed, androgynous angel in the supernatural thriller Constantine.
The character Emma Recchi in Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love is another facet in Swinton’s unusual jewel of a career. In traditional makeup and simple, elegant dresses, her red hair faded to blonde, Swinton suggests a less birdlike Joan Allen. She becomes beautiful in a structured way that implies the precise beauty money — and the time money allots for vanity and presentation — can buy.
Russian Emma was brought to Italy by her now-husband when she was young. Her past appears in a soup she makes for her eldest son, Edo (Flavio Parenti), at the party that opens the film. Change hovers with the servants: The Recchi patriarch, growing old, passes the family’s textile company on to his son and, to everyone’s surprise, to Edo. Emma, picking up Edo’s dry-cleaning, is handed a small, flat item by the dry-cleaner: something that almost went into the wash. In it, she finds a secretive note to Edo from her daughter, Betta (a luminous Alba Rohrwacher, whose crystalline beauty matches Swinton’s). Her children are growing into their lives; her husband is taking on more responsibility. Emma is simply expected to continue as she is.
I Am Love is an awakening. It’s also a story about class, immigration, love, denial, desire and family, but with Swinton at the center, it’s first about seeing the walls we build into our lives, and leaping over them, even if that leap leads to a crashing stumble.
The Recchi household is so timelessly aristocratic and artfully, stiffly beautiful that it feels at times like you’ve fallen into a period film. (John Adams’ fervent score — his music inspired the rhythms of the film, rather than the other way around — is a balance to the Recchis’ preserved style.) The architecture, the garden, the house staff (Maria Paiato shines as housekeeper Ida) — all falls aside once Emma meets Edo’s friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a chef. Antonio is a modest man whose character is secondary to the purpose he serves for Emma.
Convincingly displaying the revelatory powers of food can be as difficult as creating a convincing love scene. I Am Love manages both. Light dims on everyone but Emma as she eats a prawn dish in Antonio’s new restaurant; she seems to glow, hovering over her plate. Later, the film cuts between Emma and Antonio, naked in the grass, and images of swaying leaves and busy insects. It’s slightly absurd and obvious, yet in the images and the pacing, Guadagnino finds a sweet and unfussy abandon. It’s what you do; it’s how the world works. Carry on.
Emma’s joyous grin when she returns home, dazzled and astonished at what she’s done, infuses the rest of the film — even as it turns melodramatic and slightly heavy-handed — with a sense of freedom. A different movie would blame Emma for what happens next. Shock moves her along; tragedy frees her to cut ties. Emma’s closure is frantic, not subtle, and I Am Love’s ending isn’t immediately satisfying, coming as it does in a hurry and blur of family pain and distance. But Guadagnino and his star/producer/muse have created a convincing, affecting portrait of a woman in the midst of a metamorphosis. Change the setting, the time, the place, the people, and Emma Recchi would still be a striking portrait of desire rediscovered.
I Am Love opens Friday, July 16, at the Bijou.