Sensory delights as a family disintegrates
In this lush and ambitious new Italian film we meet Emma, a Russian woman (Tilda Swinton), who long ago married into a wealthy Milan industrialist family. When the family’s aging patriarch and company head, Edoardo Recchi Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti), retires at a grand birthday luncheon with all the family present, he turns control of the firm over to Emma’s husband Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and son Edo (Flavio Parenti). But later Edo seems more interested in starting a restaurant with his friend Antonio, a cook (Edoardo Gabbriellini). Emma’s daughter, Betta (Alba Rohrwacher), an artist who lives in London, turns out to be a lesbian. As plans move along toward starting the restaurant, Emma gradually falls in love first with Antonio’s cooking, then with him. The factory is sold, and the family disintegrates. Guadagnino has made an impressive film in the grand manner: it has touches of Antonioni and Visconti. (Douglas Sirk has also been mentioned as an influence.) But the setting is the turn of the millennium, and of course times have changed. I Am Love‘s elaborate visual style and intense, operatic music strike a new and distracting, but not unpleasing, note. The film, photographed by Yorick Le Saux, is a visual treat, with some of the most appetizing and tactile scenes of cooking and eating put on film in a long time, and a delicacy of light and color that lingers in the mind. Again Swinton shines at something that might seem impossible, or just a stunt, and the film interweaves its themes of capitalism, food, and family in sometimes intriguing ways.
From the beginning, the family’s vast art deco villa and the loyal servants play key roles. Maria Paiato is strong as the housekeeper, a de facto family member who’s the only one some can turn to in times of crisis. The cold elegance of the opening sequence may even evoke Pasolini’s Salo. Anyway, the film won’t let us stop being gawkers at the rituals of wealth. As Emma, Swinton at first is the perfect hostess, closely involved in the food preparation and attentive to details of the seating, but she is in ice queen mode, perhaps still, after so many years, not at ease in this world.
That will change. After the grand, stiff luncheon, scenes alternate between various family members. There’s a constant undercurrent of sexual politics. Both Edo and Emma respond favorably, even warmly, to Betta’s being a lesbian. The physicality of Edo’s friendship with Antonio almost crosses over from boyish affection to love. Is this just Italian or a teasing homoerotic subtext to make Antonio’s later affair with Emma ironic? Antonio, a stranger at the birthday party (which symbolically occurs with a snow storm outside) who has just beaten Edo in a race and as a peace offering brings a cake he has baked, becomes Edo’s best friend, and the restaurant plan is hatched. Antonio cooks a sample meal for Emma and his rosy shrimps, which explode onto the screen in intense, lovely closeups, seduce her utterly. She is the ice queen no more. The way to this lady’s heart is through her taste buds. As the cook-lover, Edoardo Gabbriellini seems a little bland and ordinary, but there’s nothing wrong in that. He’s fresh and young. He doesn’t seem much like a cook either, but maybe he isn’t one. Who’s really seducing whom?
Emma and Antonio have only to run into each other in San Remo, near where the restaurant is to be, for the romance to begin. The suspenseful, tense first part of this sequence has been compared to Hitchcock. Emma is drawn toward a Russian church, and then sees Antonio and surreptitiously follows him, then dashes out of a bookstore to meet him clutching a book she hasn’t paid for. When they make love in the open air the camera treats us to a feast of insects on flowers with Stravinsky-like music throbbing in the background. Here the film is at its most lavish and expressionistic; but this isn’t the only place. At times the camera movement and excessive closeups seem pointless, but that is offset by the refined color sense and seamless visual transitions.
Meanwhile things are happening to the company. The men are agreeing to sell, despite Edo’s protests about what he is told is a nonexistent tradition of family responsibility to the workers. “He liked playing at being like them,” he’s told of his father. The selling-off of the factory is prompted in London by a smooth but repugnant Indian American in suit and turban called Tubelkian (Waris Ahluwalia), who declares to Emma (who, somewhat improbably, understands no English) “Capitalism is democracy.”
This is at another big ceremonial meal at the villa, this time prepared by Antonio. It not only signals the dissolution of the family’s tradition as nominally benevolent lords of a factory but also brings tragedy, after Antonio’s preparing Edo’s favorite fish soup, a Russian dish only his mother knows, reveals to him that his mother and his friend have betrayed him. If the climax leaves one pondering afterward it is because of how deftly the various themes — the tragic May-December love story; the disintegrating family of Milanese industrial aristocrats; and the appetizing world of slow-food gourmet cooking, the latter, though not taken too seriously as this may sound, could be a way of integrating levels of society. Everybody loves good food. The seemingly anachronistic decision to focus on a grand industrial family, which might appear only one more sign that Italian filmmaking is out of touch, turns out to have been in fact a very wise choice. I Am Love strikes epic notes but also bursts with energy and physicality. After all, so does Homer. Reservations remain about the obtrusiveness of both John Adams’ music and, at times, both the images and the editing. But if Guadagnino has spun out much ado about not quite so much as meets the eye, he does a very good job of it nonetheless.
Io sono l’amore (the Italian title) opens in US theaters on a limited basis June 18, 2010. Dialogue mostly in Italian with some Russian and English. It opened at Venice and Toronto, came to the US via Sundance and several other festivals including New Directors/New Films at Lincolnn Center and the SFIFF in San Francisco, and was bought by Magnolia for US limited release June 18, 2010. It was released in the UK in April and will be release on DVD in September.
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti
Runtime: 120 min