Published Jul 15, 2010I Am Love tells the tale of bored Milanese housewife Emma (played by Tilda Swinton, who learned Italian and Russian just for this role), whose haute bourgeois, but bland, life is upturned when a new chef named Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) enters the household and their passion play takes hold of her life. It's a pretty standard premise ― Hedda Gabler meets the last act of Camille, coupled with a trashy romance novel ― but director Luca Guadagnino turns what could have been a deep, sprawling fissure into a beguiling, ethereal murmur.
Audaciously named after a scene in Philadelphia with Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington (c'mon, really?), I Am Love plays with the upstairs/downstairs caste system roles present in Emma's household, the congestion of Milan and the stiff business ventures her family partakes in, contrasting them with Antonio's country shack simple living as a nature documentary would. (There's actually a shot of bees pollinating flowers during the Emma/Antonio sex scenes.) Antonio is portrayed as a heavenly emissary, relieving Emma's melancholy like a miracle worker. Their love affair is told mostly in vignettes and flashes of skin under prevailing winds, but we know she's falling in love with him when we close in on her fork stabbing away at one of his meals.
This could have easily been a poor-man's English Patient, but from these tropes emerge aching images coated carefully in cinematic colours, controlled by shimmering costumes and strange, unknowable musical arias, all of which provide insight into the film's undercurrents. When the operatic-tragedy climax accosts the screen, the audience easily forgets at tidal speeds the opaque logic and thin narrative of the entire thing and allows the sulphurous scent of its broken romance to linger over them, even as the credits roll.
Guadagnino has created a love letter to Italian art house cinema with visual nods to past great ones. Moments like a gentle piano against the drum rumble scoring Emma and Antonio's encounters are emotionally loaded, and if you're addicted to this approach, you'll enjoy it. But if you're paying to see this film, you've already seen it before, no doubt.
Brilliant and frenetic, there is a sense in looking at this film as a whole that beneath the splashy cymbal raucousness of its sensory-led approach there lies something more thoughtful, never fully realized, but beautiful nonetheless. (Mongrel Media)