Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love is film in its most fully realized nature. It is a film of such mastery that analyses of its craft and expression, already appreciated, will grow over the years. It is the kind of art produced on those rare occasions when an artist’s vision and his insight into how to craft that vision – how to control, coordinate, modulate, alternate, choose, and sustain his elements – achieve what once we thought of as a kind of divinely inspired union.
Some, who are accustomed to think of film as a medium of recorded action, within the scene and in the cut from shot to shot, will find the movie slow. I Am Love is not a drama recorded on film. It is not a narrative transferred to film. As few films do, it utilizes all the film elements, including environmental sound and graphic, even plastic images, not always to advance a narrative, but to compose a whole. It is, contradictorily, one of the more sensuously rich minimalist films ever made. The Milan that first appears in winter white is stunning, yet stolid in each disconnected shot, like the old world industrial wealth and privilege of the Recchi family. The ambient noises are environmental piano notes collecting with the images to arrange a whole. The dialog is pared to the essential, every exchange – from the response of the paterfamilias to his granddaughter’s birthday gift, to the clashing notions of the two grandsons of what kind of businessman the elder Recchi has been – weighted with an importance easily overlooked. Even the brief appearance of a young Indian-American businessman, replete with turban, to engineer a takeover of the family business, carries with it lightly the film’s clash of contending forces. He is, in his internationalism, a sign of the new millennium’s global economic forces overwhelming Milan’s old world, yet he facilely offers neoliberal economic bromides that tell us, really, only that the location of the money and power is changing. Long scenes have no dialog. The film is carried from moment to moment by small incidental dramas that build to a stunning conclusion.
At the center of the drama is Tilda Swinton’s Emma Recchi, the wife of Tancredo, the son who inherits the family business along with his own, eldest son. As we encounter her, Emma – who we later learn is Russian, brought back to Italy by Tancredo from an art collecting journey – is the orchestrator of the artful composition that is the Recchi’s high styled and formal world. Then she meets the young chef who is her eldest son’s new business partner and friend.
The portrayal in film of couples falling in love is always a uniquely challenging enterprise, for all the centrality of it to film history. In stage dramas, long, finely wrought scenes can give us two people sharing their personal histories, feelings, and ideas as people mostly will in life. Film will not well tolerate that long focus on words, so filmmakers tend to sketch out the basis for a connection in minimal amounts of dialogue that sometimes can carry their heavy suggestive load and often cannot. There is heavy reliance on the “chemistry” of the two actors to provide that superficial yet invisible ingredient of love that will make it believable.
I Am Love takes neither route. Antonio is the chef as artist, as Emma has been the household artist. Antonio’s cooking is his sensuous way of being in the world, and Emma – as in the lunch scene in which she first tastes Antonio’s food and her companion’s disappear in shadow – is simply ravished by it. What develops between them is simple and direct in a way that nothing else is in Emma’s life, until the end, when three different kinds of love for a dish of food determine the course of events. The dramatic, climactic scene, played out completely without dialog to the soundtrack music of contemporary composer John Adams, music that is not a support to the film, but fully another element, is both a return to heightened silent movie acting and reminiscent of the kind of stylized stage movement one might see in a Robert Wilson stage production.
As Emma is ravished by Antonio’s nature, so will many viewers be by Guadagnino’s film. The final, surprising image, after the end credits have begun – slow moving, mysterious, recessed in shadows – will take its place among the signature images in film history.
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