There is much swooning—and a great, gorgeous deal to swoon over—in Luca Guadagnino’s luxurious opera of doomed desire I Am Love. As opulent and ornate as the grand palace owned by the film’s Recchi family, the movie certainly looks gorgeous, with Yorick Le Saux’s camera work practically stroking every blooming Tuscan hillside, meticulously framed Italian interior, gold-flecked Murano place setting, and mouthwatering delicacy (food, like everything else in this richly detailed film, is decadently portrayed with back-breaking meaning). Both the cast and the costumes appear to have walked straight off a nearby Milan runway, and the film sounds as lush as it looks, with a surging, urgent score by composer John Adams. The film practically threatens to buckle under the weight of its own stunning beauty, but it’s the heavy-handed symbolism that ultimately does the trick. When shots of insects pollinating flowers accompany garden lovemaking and fat drops of rain slide down the faces of cemetery statues like teardrops, you know you’re far from the land of subtle filmmaking. I Am Love may be Architectural Digest porn, or an erotic Fodor’s, but it never met a sledgehammer metaphor it didn’t lust after with equal passion.
The film begins with burgeoning promise and a delicious premise, as the Recchi patriarch has assembled his impossibly elegant clan for dinner to announce his successor of the family’s textile empire which, to no one’s surprise, is his son, Tancredi, played with bone-cold reserve by Pippo Delbono. Tancredi is married to Emma, an elegant Russian émigré and the only family member in this moneyed brood who is Italian by marriage instead of by privileged birth. As played by star and muse Tilda Swinton, Emma is the outsider turned insider, living a life of empty perfection as beautiful as it is suffocating.
Tancredi and Emma have a son, the sensitive Edoardo (a handsome, if bland Flavio Parenti) who, to everyone’s surprise, is named co-king by retiring papa saying, “It will take two men to replace me.” Silence accompanies this announcement, and it’s immediately apparent the only thing this family is comfortable raising is a crystal wine glass, not a question or conflict. So there is little surprise when Emma discovers her other child, daughter Elisabetta (Swinton dead-ringer Alba Rorbacher), is a lesbian, and the secret is kept hidden. But the revelation shakes something loose within Emma’s impeccably ordered world, and when she meets Edoardo’s friend, the humble yet swarthy Antonio, you know that soon these two will be cooking up something more than costoletta. When the two share a blowtorch in the kitchen to flambé an appetizer, viewers can only hope the dishes Antonio concocts are more delicate on the palate than what Guadagnino is serving. There are far too many indulgent ingredients in the film, which cause the work to be ultimately frustrating. Everything is too much, yet simultaneously not enough.
After carefully crafting such an elaborate hierarchy of characters and contrivances, the final act is so feverishly rushed that the pain and consequences feel almost like a plot cheat, and the flimsy, almost thrown-together dénouement leaves more questions than it can hope to answer. Is Edoardo’s affection for his friend Antonio more than it seems, and is Elisabetta not the only “family” in the family? How secure is the Recchi’s financial situation really, especially when an Indian conglomerate swoops in to globalize the family business? (The turban-wearing Hindi is the only primarily English-speaking character, though. Nice touch.) Does Edo’s fiancée in fact share some secret with the doomed heroine Emma? Where the hell has ’70s model and Cabaret actress Marisa Berenson been all these years? And how did she become the most beautiful older actress alive today, on a gorgeous par with Sophia Loren and Julie Christie?
You can search the web to find the answer for that one. But to solve the mysteries of the visually arresting but ultimately confused I Am Love, you’re on your own.
At press time, I Am Love was to have continued its run at Angelika Film Center (www.angelikafilmcenter.com).