by Tony Dayoub
Director Luca Guadagnino's contrapuntally executed I Am Love might end up being the finest film I'll see this year. Quiet and understated in its performances while grand and operatic in its setting and musical score, it is all the more outstanding because it relies in part on the icy Tilda Swinton (Orlando) to communicate its passionate flourishes. This isn't to say Swinton has never seemed capable of such emotional intensity. But she isn't the first actress around which one thinks of fashioning such a succulent melodrama.
Swinton plays Emma, the elegant wife and mother of the two wealthy heirs to a textile house in Milan. Two because the old patriarch (Gabriele Ferzetti) who started the empire doesn't believe his son or grandson can sufficiently run the business individually. All indications of this are true. Emma's cold fish of a husband, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), mechanically crafts his life to suit his father's wishes. He lacks the old man's empathy for his workers.
This dispassionate pragmatism, we find out later, includes the molding of Emma to fit perfectly into the dynastic family after sweeping her away from her working class Russian origins. Son Edo (Flavio Parenti), the family's golden boy, is more idealistic, warmer, yet lacks the objectivity to run the business efficiently. He reflects the earthier (earth-mother?) aspect Emma has buried deep within in order to assimilate. Spurred by her discovery that her daughter Betta (Alba Rohrwacher) is a lesbian, Emma begins to reconnect with this repressed self, leading to an affair with Edo's friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a gifted young chef.
Antonio initially seduces Emma with his cooking artistry, awakening the sensual passion for food she shares with her son. But the real tension in I Am Love isn't between Emma and her lover. She is discreet, honest, and self-aware enough to pursue the affair without regrets. It is Emma, Tancredi, and Edo who actually form the triangular crux of the film. Like her husband, Emma is sensible enough to conduct the affair with expedience and secrecy, conscious enough to prevent its disruption of the family's decorum.
Whenever she visits Antonio though, she regresses to the Russian peasant girl she was. In the seclusion of the splendid Sanremo hills where he works with Edo to open a restaurant, Emma allows her emotions to drive her, wallowing in the primal glory of the romance. Seen through the refraction of the affair, Emma's son Edo becomes as much the result of her compassionate upbringing as he is the catalyst for his mother's rediscovery of self (he introduced the two lovers).
John Adams' bombastic score expresses the turmoil roiling underneath I Am Love's surface. Divorce his musical contribution from the film, and its first-person omniscient narrative would seem static and muted, despite some propulsive camerawork by Yorick Le Saux (Boarding Gate). It is Adams' music which stirs the viewer with intimations of Emma's hidden feelings, emotions she represses after years of conditioning to fit the mold of the perfect wife. It is at the climax of I Am Love that the soaring music hits its apogee of grandiosity, skirting pretension to lay bare the epiphany which Swinton holds in to protect the film from crossing the line into manipulative soap.
The opulence of the family's household, the beauty of the Sanremo hills, and the intricacy of the Milanese architecture—representations of Emma's fragmented spirit made manifest—forge a battleground in which to watch the dynamic forces of joy and adherence to tradition go to war. Guadagnino's apportioning I Am Love's dramatic cadences between actress, composer, and camera ameliorates any outbursts which could explode the delicately balanced movie into an overwrought mess. Emma's self-discovery culminates in a knowing glance between her and Betta, her legacy of independence surviving in her daughter to perhaps bring down the pompous family in the next generation.