Magnolia Pictures // 2010 // 120 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 13th, 2010
A story of what happens when you follow your heart.
Edoardo Recchi Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti, Othello) is the aging patriarch of the esteemed Recchi family, and the owner of a large business that is responsible for the family's financial comfort. He knows that his death is not far away, and has decided to hand over the reins to two of his family members: his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and his grandson Edoardo Jr., aka "Edo" (Flavio Parenti, Blood of the Losers). Edo has recently become close friends with a local chef named Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini, Don't Think About It), and hopes to open a new restaurant with him soon. Things take a surprising turn when Emma (Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton), Tancredi's wife and Edo's mother, encounters Antonio on the street. A friendly conversation turns into a trip back to Antonio's place, and soon Emma and Antonio have begun conducting a passionate affair. This decision triggers a series of events that will permanently change the Recchi family's world.
Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love is a story of quiet personal conflicts, buried passions, and hidden betrayals delivered in a feverish, sweeping, melodramatic manner. The film is ultimately a victory of style over substance, but it's not an entirely insubstantial experience. For all the moments of contrivance and somewhat overcooked drama, there are still some genuinely intriguing ideas at the film's core. Even if the story doesn't quite work for you, the level of craftsmanship on display is likely to keep you engaged.
Love plays an important role in the lives of these characters -- some are experiencing it, some are witnessing it, some are trying to find it -- and the element of love scorches through the film like some sort of unstable chemical. Guadagnino regards love as something ferociously potent, an alluring force that can bring both salvation and devastation. Love is responsible for almost everything that happens to these characters, and the film depicts it as something so irresistible that the characters (even the most independently-minded ones) seem to be puppets being controlled by a power beyond their reach.
The opening act is the film's most subdued portion, an elegant and quiet section in which the players are carefully established. This portion has been favorably compared to Visconti's The Leopard, another film about wealthy characters in complicated situations. Later, the film also echoes The Leopard's manner of capturing drama in unexpected places -- witness a scene in which the type of food served at a meal unintentionally reveals a secret that has been carefully guarded until that point.
Somewhere around the 45-minute mark, there's a scene that throws a changeup into the mix. Emma and some others have decided to enjoy lunch at Antonio's restaurant. The meal is served, and Emma glances at her plate. The diverse, carefully-arranged meal on her plate strikes her as being perfect in every way, and soon she is entirely absorbed in sampling each element. As she does so, the film reflects her pleasure by zooming in closer and closer, giving us almost absurdly detailed shots of the fork stabbing small pieces of shrimp, Emma's mouth chewing, etc. Suddenly someone says something to Emma, the camera zooms back out and she gives a small look of embarrassment at the manner in which she allowed the perfect meal to absorb her so completely.
This scene serves as something of a primer for similar moments that appear later. The cinematography begins as something traditionally beautiful, but soon becomes so intimate and mercilessly detailed that it becomes just a little off-putting. The emotions being experienced are simultaneously thrilling and embarrassing, and the potential of indulging one's desire could lead somewhere wonderful or horrible. It's a splendidly subtle manner of communicating an idea in a film that often seems bombastic (this is largely due to the John Adams score, which often plays like an arthouse version of a Hollywood thriller soundtrack).
Though numerous characters are involved, it's Swinton's Emma who serves as the driving force of the film. The decisions her characters make tend to have far-reaching consequences, and she's almost always at the center of the scenes she shares with multiple characters. It's yet another tremendously ambitious performance from one of cinema's most compelling actresses; a challenging role that required Swinton not only to learn to speak Italian in a Russian accent but also to submit herself to some very difficult scenes (there are a couple of moments in which the camera is permitted to explore her body in a way that very few actresses would feel comfortable with). The performance is pitched halfway between upper-class reserve and raw passion, and Swinton hits that uneasy note masterfully.
Moreso than most films, I Am Love benefits dramatically from its 1080p/1.78:1 hi-def transfer. The level of detail is important to the film's effectiveness, and fortunately this transfer captures that detail pretty well. This is a visually lush and vibrant picture, with a color scheme reminiscent of Douglas Sirk. The bright images just pop off the screen at times, really immersing the viewer in the European opulence of the film. Blacks are rich and inky, while shadow delineation is impressive. When the imagery looks a bit obscure (as in the mid-credits scene at the end), it's for artistic purposes. There's a bit of softness at times, but again, I suspect this is largely intentional. The audio is excellent, with an emphasis being placed on the frenzied John Adams score. The finale in particular demonstrates room-shaking power. Sound design is fairly minimal and dialogue can be awfully quiet at times, though this won't be much of an issue for viewers watching the film with English subtitles. Supplements include an audio commentary with Guadagnino and Swinton, a 14-minute making-of featurette entitled "Moment on the Set of I Am Love," and over an hour of additional cast and crew interviews.
As with numerous European films that emphasize melodrama and passion over realism, I can see how I Am Love could become a little frustrating for viewers who don't find themselves swept up in the film's style. The storytelling isn't exactly convincing if regarded on its own, so one has to be open to the film's tone in order to appreciate its virtues.
The ambition and virtues of I Am Love far outweigh its flaws, and Swinton's performance is a marvel to behold. The Blu-ray captures the film's visual virtues quite well, too.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Italian)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R