Obsessive love and art's revolt: 9 notes on Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love starring Tilda Swinton
Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love served as a kind of aesthetic cleanser for my week, a film so artfully made, it immediately sparked associations with Vertigo, The Talented Mr. Ripley, A Single Man, The Leopard, L'Avventura, and Big Night. Even as Yorick Le Saux's cinematography moves between edgy and gorgeous, I Am Love keeps shifting and re-shifting its allegiances between art and nature, the rich and the poor, the interior and the exterior world, and the past and the present. In the process, the film never settles on the obvious conclusion. Some notes with spoilers:
1) The title I Am Love, which evokes Rimbaud's "J'est un autre" (I is someone else), at first appears to be a bland affirmation of the power of love, but insofar as society matron Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton) has to sacrifice everything to become "love," one realizes that the title also hints at the annihilation of her identity.
2) I found it weird how I Am Love shares with Eat, Pray, Love a three word title that ends with "Love" and includes a female midlife crisis intertwined with a rapturous appreciation of Italian cuisine. There, I trust, the resemblance ends.
3) I liked the way that Guadagnino kept exploring artistic forms, notably those found in architecture, fashion, the nude, interior decoration, and in high cuisine. The film begins with several shots of large buildings in Milan on a snowy winter day. They reminded me of Saul Steinberg's drawings where larger institutions dwarf humanity. These scenes prepare the viewer for the sense of upper class social control and heirarchy in Recchi family's extravagant dinner party where the elder titan of the Recchi textile industry (Gabriele Ferzetti) bequeaths his power to his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and his grandson Edoardo (Flavio Parenti). During the course of the party, we learn that Edoardo just lost a race to Antonio, a chef (Edoardo Gabbriellini). For some reason, later on that evening, Antonio stops by with a cake he had made for Edoardo. When he first appears out of the snowy night, we see his (class-related?) hesitation before interfering with such a high class affair, and he refuses to accept Edoardo's offer to come inside. When the head house servant turns her back for a moment, Antonio sneaks out.
4) A bearded, intense artist, Antonio befriends Edoardo, uses him to obtain permission to open a restaurant, seduces Emma with his cooking, and eventually proves instrumental in provoking Edoardo's death. Does he do all of this out of class resentment, or is he just blithely following his culinary and erotic passions? It is really hard to tell.
5) Meanwhile, another artist, Emma's daughter, Betta (Alba Rohrwacher), who shares Emma's Russian blond coloring, manages to shock the family patriarch by giving him a photograph of a garden when he's expecting one of her drawings. The scene emphasizes how the artists in the family keep restlessly shifting their forms of expression, and even though the Recchi are rich and cultured enough to enjoy art, they are uneasy with its potential for subversive passion. Emma is both an enviably sophisticated woman of leisure and a caged animal in an airless museum. So, when Betta breaks out of her expected role and starts a passionate affair with a woman, Emma finds herself tempted by her daughter's example.
6) I Am Love first shifts to Emma's subjective point of view when she eats some of Antonio's expertly prepared prawns with homegrown vegetables. Suddenly, the lighting rests only on her as the rest of the room dims, a scene reminiscent of Newland Archer and Ellen Olenski's similarly lit early private romantic moment in the theater in Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993).
7) When Emma gives into her passion and starts to follow Antonio around San Remo, Guadagnino has her wear the exact same hairdo that Kim Novak wears in Hitchcock's Vertigo.
The homage suits the way Emma's fixation on Antonio now takes on obsessive overtones, just as Scottie becomes obsessed with Madeleine, but now the two roles are reversed, with an older woman chasing a younger man. When Antonio threatens to turn around and see her, Emma ducks into a book shop and in her confusion and excitement, looks at an art book. Then, she inadvertently steals the book when she hops out of the store, and bumps into Antonio, who then cheerfully asks her to join him in visiting his garden in the countryside. The theft of the book emphasizes the transgressive side of Emma's interest in Antonio and his cooking. The interest in art now leads her out into nature, where she will sleep with Antonio al fresco. For the rest of the film, Emma's desire to break the confines of her high society position will lead her to increasingly run around outside barefoot as the rest of the Recchi clan looks on, bewildered.
8) And yet, when one would expect Guadagnino to affirm this new pastoral love, he also uses its imagery to plant the seeds (so to speak) of Edoardo's destruction. Whenever Emma is around water, be it with her daughter by the pool, or with Antonio when they make love near a mountain stream, or even by some bottled water in the back of Antonio's restaurant, all of these scenes prepare the viewer for Edoardo's death late in the film when he falls and hits his head on a stone parapet before falling into a pool. All of this occurs directly after he learns of his mother's affair with his friend Antonio.
9) Just when one expects the film to go all pastoral and sweet, it turns lethal. Other ambivalent images of nature include individual shots of insects on flowers in the lovemaking scene and a later shot of Antonio and Emma reclining murkily inside a dark cave. On one level, she has shaken off her formal shoes, burst the confines of her swank Milan existence, and followed her subversive heart, but now what's she doing being enveloped by the earth? With her son dead, her family estranged, and Antonio leading her further and further into the dark, where's the triumph in her "being" love now? Aside from beautifully depicting these multiple tensions, I Am Love refuses to say.
Rene Rodriguez discusses I Am Love's literary and cinematic influences