Luca Guadagnino’s new Italian art film might not get everyone who sees it to fall in love with its characters. The film is more than a bit odder than conventional melodrama. Yet, the filmmaking, the art direction, is so beautiful that the emotional distance between the viewer and the story dissipates. Guadagnino’s film seduces us with cinema’s unique aesthetic tools (expressionistic editing, composition and lighting), perfectly pairs these images with some sparkling, propulsive music from John Adams, and a story that otherwise would seem cool and dispassionate instead becomes routinely punctuated with wonder and beauty.
The object of our affection? It ultimately boils down to Italy. Throughout the film we are engulfed in Italian-ness, whether it be the authentic organic food and wine, the gorgeous marble domed churches, the mountainous villages that offer striking vertical angles, the elegant dress of the upper classes, or the beauty of the docks at Sanremo, these are the images, the sensations, that stay with you. The plot involves a wealthy family and the passing of control of its large and successful company from one generation to the next, but this generates minimal interest. Tancredo Recchi has been given control over the company, which he shares, albeit unequally, with his son Edoardo. Tancredo is pressured to sell to a multinational, and Edoardo objects on the grounds that this would sully the family name and the traditions the company was founded on. Edo is the only one in the family who seems to have a head on his shoulders.
Tilda Swinton plays Tancredo’s wife and Edo’s mother, Emma, a Russian who has allowed herself to be swept up in Recchi opulence and out of her native country by Tancredo. Given the comfort and beauty in which she now lives, I hardly blame her for that decision. One wonders, though, just how calculated a decision it was to marry Tancredo. She soon falls for a talented young chef and organic farmer who is quiet, reserved, and completely respectful. His passion for creative organic cooking has seduced her; it was his prawn ratatouille that got her. Apparently Swinton’s Emma was itching for a reason to get out of her stuffy, loveless marriage, or maybe that ratatouille was really that good. Either way, it is a rather ridiculous plot turn. Yet it is not the story that we become attached to, but rather the telling of it. Emma’s sexual and emotional blossoming allows Guadagnino to embellish his scenes with artful and intoxicating images and dreamlike, psychological editing. The skill of his execution, along with the depth of Swinton’s performance, is what sets I Am Love apart.