Reviews and notes
2009 Venice, Toronto, Rome, Marrakech
2010 Sundance, Berlin, Glasgow, Dublin, San Francisco, Transilvania, Sydney, Wellington, Athens
Watching this lush, operatic Italian drama about a clannish family of wealthy Milanese industrialists is like suddenly being exposed to a full orchestra when you have become accustomed to listening to the plaintive sawing of a lone violinist. It’s an exquisite, all-enveloping feast of sensual pleasures. It’s almost certainly the most elegant piece of cinema you’ll see this year. It is melodrama as celebration rather than as guilty pleasure. Tilda Swinton is magnificent as Emma Recchi, the Russian-born wife of the heir to the Recchi business, Tancredi. Initially we don’t even realise that Swinton’s character is the centre of the story. Reserved, somewhat aloof, she seems to be just another polished, precious gem in the Recchi collection. But a fateful encounter with a handsome young chef and his sublime cooking gradually awakens the young girl who has been dormant since Emma left Russia to be Tancredi’s wife. Guadagnino references both Visconti and Hitchcock as the saga unfolds, but his voice is original and his vision utterly compelling.
- Wendy Ide, The Times.
Impeccably directed, elegantly shot, starring critics' darling Tilda Swinton and stuffed with more than enough spot-the-reference cinematic winks to spark a lively game of one-upmanship among reviewers attempting to demonstrate their buffery with catalogues of its manifold influences (Hitchcock, Visconti, Sirk and Antonioni are some of the luminaries who have cropped up in the columns) – it's little wonder that Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love
is already being lauded as this year's most significant cinematic discovery. An upper-class melodrama which gives the lie to the commonplace that great wealth does not a subject for great films make, it is as sleek and polished as the marble surfaces and angular art deco fittings of the family apartments inhabited by its protagonists, the Recchis, the 'unbeatable' dynasty of textile merchants whose ultimate collapse is brought about by the burgeoning affair between poised matriarch Emma and Antonio, the blue-collar friend of her son Edo.
As Emma, Swinton is reliably regal, her tight-lipped demeanour and Gioconda smile forcing us to piece together her motives from the brief snatches of insight she offers. Her behaviour is of course perfectly in keeping with this upper-class Italian world, which is reflected too in the aloof and haughty camerawork. Keeping a respectful distance from his gracious and graceful subjects, DP Yorick Le Saux allows us to breathe it all in: the architecture, the artworks, the decor, the elegant clothes, Hermes scarves and Ferragamo pumps. It's no surprise to learn that Guadagnino cut his teeth working on television adverts for elite fashion house Fendi, since everything about these characters and their world is so utterly tasteful – the exception perhaps being their food; it's remarkable that the only dishes they swoon over (and swoon they do) come from outside, whether it's the quasi-erotic delicacies prepared by chef Antonio or the recipe for soup Emma brings with her from her Russian homeland which bizarrely, brilliantly and bathetically ushers in the films melodramatic climax.
For the most part, the film's finely calibrated combination of lavish sensuality and opaque objectivity works well: there's some marvellously subtle signposting of Emma's Baltic roots in the snow-clad geometric structures that recall Soviet winters and the Eisensteinian montages of textile production in the family factory. A briefly snatched glimpse of Emma kissing Antonio before running to the toilet, gasping for breath, to urinate, is meanwhile both surreal and delirious, as heady with unresolved implications as Edo's declaration that the first time he tasted Antonio's food he "fell in love with him." And what small hiccups there are – a drawn-out alfresco love sequence, all dappled sunlight and cutaways to thriving nature, that smacks of cheesy Chatterley adaptations; the rather gauche signalling of Emma and her newly outed daughter Betta's transitions from soignee society ladies to liberated lovers by the shearing of their hair and the swapping of their suspender belts for slacks – are easy enough to overlook within the context of the film's grand operatic sweep.
And yet – and yet! – while it's easy to admire, Guadagnino's is a film that is, ironically enough, difficult to love. For all its overwhelming sensuality, it always keeps us at one remove, with the end effect being somehow rather bloodless. And if it's Antonio's pluck, his fervour and, crucially, his vulnerability that ultimately set Emma's heart alight, then I Am Love
is a bit too accomplished, too self-assured and, dare I say it, a little frigid, to ignite similar passions in its audiences. But then, success is a subjective phenomenon, and since in every other respect the film is near flawless, perhaps, like the Recchis themselves, passion is something it can do perfectly well without.
- Catherine Wheatley, Sight & Sound, May 2010.
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