"I only read it for the articles" used to be the thinking man's excuse for buying Playboy magazine. The Italian melodrama I Am Love harks back to the wave of erotic European art cinema that stormed America during Playboy's 1960s heyday. Much of those films' popularity could be attributed to their sexual candor, especially compared to Hollywood films of the era. Moviegoers could use highbrow justifications for buying tickets: "Oh, I only see them for their ambiguous but insightful portraits of 20th century anomie."
Initially, I Am Love feels far more like an icy, emotionally repressed Scandinavian film than a typical Italian import. The opening credits tour Milan in winter, with ancient buildings and statues shrouded in snow. Inside the Recchi family mansion, the colors are warm but the emotions hover near freezing as Emma (Tilda Swinton) prepares a formal dinner and birthday party for her father-in-law (Gabriele Ferzetti). At the meal, the imperious patriarch decides to bequeath the family textile business to both Emma's husband (Pippo Delbono) and their son Edo (Flavio Parenti), and we anticipate a King Lear-like crisis of succession.
Edo comes across as a charming playboy, and we hear that earlier that day his chef friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) beat him in an unspecified "race." (10K? Grand Prix? Soap-box derby?) Edo seems disinterested in the family business and splits his time between his gorgeous girlfriend and Antonio, with whom he wants to open a restaurant. Emma proves unexpectedly attracted to Antonio for different reasons, as his cooking and, later, his body awaken her sensuality.
Swinton's rich, subtle performance signals Emma's frustrations that the dialogue never spells out. She's a Russian immigrant whose identity primarily rests on running the Recchi family while still feeling like an outsider. When she learns that Edo's younger sister (Alba Rohrwacher) is gay, Emma begins to pay attention to her own physical needs. Swinton developed the film for years with writer/director Luca Guadagnino, going so far as to learn Italian and Russian for the role. It's particularly interesting to speculate that Emma and Antonio's relationship develops because they both subconsciously want to get closer to Edo, but societal restrictions prevent them.
I Am Love builds to a carnal interlude on a sun-drenched hillside, and intercuts between unidentifiable close-ups of the lovers' flesh and glimpses of springtime's natural wonders. It's not exactly hard to decode the symbolic contrasts of upper-class sterility and rural fecundity. Despite the sharp details that define all the members of the Recchi family, Guadagnino's elliptical approach to the characters often creates an emotional gap between the personalities and the audience. Antonio in particular comes across as a handsome blank.
Instead of a critique of suppressed feelings, I Am Love frequently feels emotionally disconnected from the viewer. Nevertheless, the gastronomy looks as yummy as the sexuality.
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