I Am Love (Italy, 2009)

June 26, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
I Am Love Poster

I Am Love falls into the select category of films that are easier to admire than like. Director Luca Guadagnino's arm's length approach to the story creates a buffer between the audience and the main character - something that works well during the first half but fails to create the emotional resonance to provide the second hour with its full power. For I Am Love to succeed on all levels, one needs to empathize with Tilda Swinton's Emma, but the stylistic choices made by Guadagnino keep the viewer in the position of a detached observer. As good as Swinton's performance is, and it's very good, it is difficult to connect with Emma. In many ways, I Am Love becomes an exercise in studying technique and, while that's something scholars and film students may appreciate, it's not the most fulfilling way to approach a production for the average movie-goer.

I Am Love is divided into two parts. The first, which comprises the majority of the film's initial hour, unfolds like an ensemble piece, introducing the various members of the Recchi clan, the owners of a profitable Italian textile mill. The patriarch, Edoardo (Gabriele Ferzetti), sensing the approach of the Grim Reaper, has decided to pass control to his son, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), and his most accomplished grandson, Edo (Flavio Parenti). Additional family matters drag other issues into the spotlight. Edo has brought home his intended fiancé to meet Mom and Dad. The Recchi daughter, Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher), has acknowledged that she's a lesbian. Meanwhile, Tancredi's quiet, faithful wife, Emma (Swinton), remains in the background - a member of the family yet not truly an insider. The second half of I Am Love places the focus on Emma, who has become attracted to a friend of Edo's, a chef named Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). After a few innocent encounters and some gentle flirting, they enter into a passionate affair that has unexpected and tragic ramifications for the Recchi empire.

From a purely narrative perspective, the film's first hour has a tendency to wander, especially during the period between the end of the dinner party and the time when Emma meets Antonio in the street. With that encounter, however, the storyline becomes better structured and the characters and their relationships gel. In a way, it makes sense to establish I Am Love in this manner, since the main thrust of the plot concerns Emma's emergence from an anonymous place in the background to one in the foreground. Still, it can be a chore to sit through some of the early parts of I Am Love - the snail's pace is not conducive to immersion.

Swinton is marvelous, especially during the second hour. A chameleon of an actress, she can shift her normally androgynous appearance at will, filling roles across the spectrum from mousy to sexually voracious. Here, she's somewhere in the middle - a repressed and uncertain woman who finds through her exploration of the "forbidden fruit" feelings with which she is unaccustomed. It's easy to accept Emma because we believe Swinton. She embodies the character. To play the role, she not only learned to speak Italian, but to speak it with a Russian accent. Talk about dedication to one's craft. The rest of the cast is fine; it's a testimony to the lead actress that she dominates scenes even when she has no dialogue and/or is relegated to the background.

Visually, I Am Love is sumptuous. Guadagnino enjoys playing with angles and placing the camera in unusual positions. The film has relatively few static shots - the camera is almost always moving. There are some memorable images of characters traversing a spiral staircase that are filmed from above and there's a tracking shot that begins following Swinton at street level then swoops up to a 45-degree angle above her before returning to the horizontal plane behind her. Hardly a scene passes without the camera doing something interesting. Shot composition is also memorable. The opening credits sequence, which depicts Milan blanketed in Christmastime snow, presents such a stark contrast between the snow and the darker objects in the frame that it seems to be almost in black-and-white. Unfortunately, similar kudos cannot be heaped upon John Adams' music, which is frequently over-the-top and distracting. At times, it is so inappropriate that it calls attention to itself. For example, during a scene when Emma is trailing Antonio as he walks along a street, the bombastic score sounds like it was composed for an action scene in a spy movie.

I Am Love is a cinematic feast for those who love a diverse visual style and don't mind an accompanying slow pace, or for those who appreciate the opportunity to observe a masterful performance. Others will likely find this movie slow and ponderous with too little emotional attachment to make the experience worth the investment of time. My admiration for I Am Love is higher than my appreciation, and its appeal will be limited to an exclusive audience.

I Am Love (Italy, 2009)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2010-06-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: In Italian with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1