Similar to the Dogme 95 classic The Celebration, I Am Love opens with a family dinner so lavish and ostentatious that your theater popcorn tastes like poverty and kitsch. Tailored men and women clink glasses and show their teeth at a dinner table the size of a baleen whale. Behind the façade of Italian silk and invisible pantylines reeks the stench of scandal. Like Thomas Vinterberg, Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino first presents us with images of excess only to strip away their pristine appeal as each character reveals his/her secret. Rich people and dirty secrets can make for interesting films like The Celebration, which relied on character and dialogue to carry the film’s DIY aesthetic, but when you mix emotional heaviness with an over-the-top musical score and extravagant filmmaking, things can get a bit garish, as they do in I Am Love. Guadagnino’s ode to classical Italian filmmaking, not to mention his 11-year collaborative effort with Tilda Swinton, proves to be an ornamented, bombastic film that often gets lost in its own hallways of grandeur, never fully reaching the feminist manifesto it sets out to proclaim.
Taking place in Milan, the film tells the story of the Recchi family: a dynasty of wealth and strict emotions. In the opening dinner sequence, Edoardo Senior (Gabriele Ferzetti) announces his retirement from the family’s textile business, and will leave the inheritance to his son, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), and grandson, Edo (Flavio Perenti). Rather than focus on Tancredi’s quietly insulted reaction, we watch his Russian-born wife, Emma (Tilda Swinton), glance at the table, smile slightly, and restrain acknowledgement of the tension between husband and son. It is a telling moment, for we are switching our attention from the Italian patriarch to the Russian woman, and we realize that this is, essentially, her story.
The family dynamic sets the stage for Emma’s awakening, a transformation à la Kate Chopin or D.H. Lawrence. Through her son, she meets Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a young chef who infuses classical recipes with modern flair — a predictable metaphor for the sexual affair between Antonio and Emma. As if this weren’t enough emotional fodder, there are side storylines involving Emma’s daughter, Betta (Alba Rohrwacher), coming out as a lesbian in letters to her brother, Edo, the sensitive, “good son” battling his father for a more humane approach to the textile industry, and who is engaged to a wretched, neo-conservative woman. These branching narratives prove to be hazardous to the development of characters, as they distract the audience from understanding or even caring why characters do what they do — creative suicide for a film about rich people’s problems. Guadagnino spends little time on exposition, leaving us to wonder why Emma and Tancredi’s marriage is so awful, where Emma comes from, where Antonio comes from, and why Betta’s lesbianism influences Emma’s infidelity. The slight hint of an Oedipal relationship between Emma and Edo could have been an interesting twist in an otherwise formulaic narrative, but it remains a quiet elephant. (At least the sex is good?)
Tilda Swinton could transform a commercial for Wendy’s junior bacon cheeseburgers into a thing of highbrow art; such is her talent for devastating performances. After watching her in last year’s underappreciated Julia, I had hoped for another face-melting experience watching Swinton work. Indeed, her performance in I Am Love is the highlight of the film, but her role isn’t nearly as interesting as the sloppy, boozy ugliness of Julia. It’s not Swinton’s fault; Guadagnino could easily have opened up Emma’s character to make a film about class and gender struggles from the perspective of a Russian immigrant, with nary a hint of melodrama. Instead, Guadagnino spotlights John Adams’ score and Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography, forgoing substance for splash, and leaving Swinton the burden of reaching for straws in an empty cinematic vessel. After watching The Human Centipede last week, I wasn’t sure I could leave a theater feeling so empty again, but I left I Am Love feeling bored and apathetic. I Am Love is visually alive, but emotionally still-born. Perhaps it’s lust they’re after, not love.