Not for a second, does director Luca Guadagnino allow those who view I Am Love to forget that they are watching a movie. While many directors (usually Americans) focus efforts on immersing audiences into their film, Guadagnino takes deliberate steps towards alienating his viewers. His operatic style exists solely to keep us at bay; never are we to believe that we fully understand his characters or their situations. We mustn’t try to relate or empathize with them, for we do not exist in the universe that is projected on screen; they are there, and we are here, and that is the way it has to be.
Opening on a dinner party, I Am Love begins with the retirement of the Recchi family patriarch. The textile manufacturer has just passed control of the family business, a source of great wealth for the Recchi’s, to his son, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and – to everyone’s surprise – his oldest grandson, Eduardo (Flavio Parenti). Some months later, Tancredi and Eduardo battle against one another over how to run the business - Tancredi and his mother want to sell, whereas Eduardo wants to maintain the Recchi family legacy. Around this same time, Eduardo’s sister (Tancredi’s daughter), Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) moves to London to study art.
These circumstances leave Tancredi’s wife feeling restless. With her kids grown and her husband focused on selling the factory, Emma (Tilda Swinton), a Russian native living in Italy, is especially lonely. While incredibly wealthy, she posseses little for which she truly cares.
Guadagnino takes his time shifting focus from the greater tale of the Recchi family, to a story focused on Emma, whose restlessness eventually pushes her into a sexual awakening.
Tilda Swinton captures Emma’s essence in a way few actresses could. She does not play a part, she becomes the character. In a film which relies so heavily on grandeur, her subtle, starkly real performance stands out – by not standing out. By being the only authentic, human presence in the entire film, audiences are given no choice but to sympathize with her, even through her indiscretions. We still never fully understand her, but by creating an unfamiliar world within his film, Guadagnino allows us to feel her isolation.
Emma’s affair is not the only one explored in I Am Love. Guadagnino uses his movie to explore his own love for film. Shot on good, old-fashioned celluloid – grain and occasional discoloration intact – I Am Love is endlessly erotic. The texture of the images is palpable and impossible to overlook. Yes, there is a love story occurring within the picture, but really, the sexuality exists far more in exposition than subject.
The film’s lush cinematography, while masturbatory at times, is a work of art unto itself. Endless shots of scenery, extended close-ups and sweeping camera movements exude an arousing confidence that is impossible to describe. The emotional gravity of each scene is displayed through deliberate camerawork, images often explaining what words cannot.
Further, small events throughout the film are coupled with overblown musical score which, on a superficial level, does not always seem to fit. However, if one is able to ignore the physicality of a given scene, and instead focus on a character’s internal progress, the sounds become startlingly poignant. It’s the scene with very little action which often carries the most emotional heft.
Even without a compelling story, or Swinton’s Oscar-worthy performance, I Am Love would be one of the most visually marvelous films of the year; it’s a mere bonus that we are treated to the former as well.