The Italian melodrama I Am Love is often as ridiculous and grandiose as its title. It's the story of Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton), the elegant, composed Russian wife of a Milanese textile magnate, whose great thaw comes at the tender hands of her adult son's best friend, Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), an earthy chef who becomes her secret lover.
Beautifully shot by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (who also photographed French director Francois Ozon's somewhat similar crossover art-house hit Swimming Pool), the film chronicles Emma's sexual awakening with a visual journey that begins with the severe, imposing beauty of Milan in winter and eventually winds to a hilly seaside village in spring.
But director Luca Guadagnino consistently overplays this material. Or, rather, overplays it too clumsily. In the increasingly crowded world of cinematic food/sex connections, Emma's first, nearly orgasmic taste of Antonio's prawns with ratatouille stands out as comically exaggerated yet apparently sincere. A later scene finds Emma's son taking one look a bowl of fish soup redolent of his childhood and a flood of quick-edited recognition overcomes him, as if he'd just been given all the sections of the screenplay he isn't in. It might be a comic reference to a great scene from the animated Ratatouille were I Am Love not so utterly serious.
This is a movie where two characters make love outside, a sensuous cinematic medley of flowers, berries, leaves, and bare skin. But then as climax approaches, shots of bees pollinating flowers begin to appear and composer John Adams' forceful, striking score explodes. (And I won't even get into the film's use of the most mawkish scene from Tom Hanks' Oscar-winner Philadelphia.)
Like Swimming Pool, I Am Love is a fantasy of transgression and liberation, but unlike Swimming Pool, it seems unaware of its own limits. And along with Guadagnino's at times overbearing direction comes an unearned sense of satisfaction — plot points about globalization and homosexuality are the stuff of an old-fashioned film playing progressive.
That I Am Love warrants attention despite its immense problems is a testament to some voluptuous visuals and the presence of the frequently extraordinary Swinton, who is transfixing throughout.
Opening Friday, July 23rd