I Am Love January 13, 2017
The connection between the bourgeoisie and high-fashioned melodrama is a dependable given in our most strung-out forms of entertainment. With the lives of the affluent so distinctly out of touch — consider a mansion to be its very own world once the gold lion-guarded gates tightly close — it’s expected that romantic entanglements and extremely personal betrayals be the utmost priorities of a child of wealth’s day. When money’s not among one’s worries and indulgence is an everyday occurrence and not just a circumstantial form of stress relief, all there is to involve oneself with are torrid affairs and actions to thwart the family biz. Maybe the firing of one of the help. Possibly a death in the family to rattle things up. Dynasty, Dallas, and Dark Shadows would know of such ills.
Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love is concerned with such people — people who have little to do besides create drama and dress chicly because they’re so sick of the monotony brought on by having it all. Its primary target is the indestructibly uptown Recchi family, who, like the Carringtons and Cassadines before them, are the sort of money-drenched glamourpusses ripe for vicious backstabbings and near-Shakespearean tragedies.
As the film opens, they are celebrating the birthday of their patriarch, Edoardo Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti), who, despite his still firm hold on the family business, is ready to move toward the retirement. The night already tense, with grandson Edo (Flavio Parenti) having brought his comparatively old-money-dependent girlfriend (Diane Fieri) to show off, anxieties for the future are topped off when Sr. announces his decision to pass his company on to his son, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) — predictable — and Edo. Which is, taking the latter’s inexperience into account, a total shocker.
But the movie only designates this initially crucial development as secondary. More fundamental is the character of Emma (Tilda Swinton), Tancredi’s wife. At first, she seems cold, the sophisticated ice maiden archetype previously perfected by Catherine Deneuve in Belle De Jour (1967). But after some time do we discover that she is, in actuality, a previously humble woman of Russian descent. That she married rich wasn’t a matter of social climbing: she actually happened to like Tancredi when they got together.
But as the years have passed and her children have grown, she's begun to realize that she’s been swallowed almost completely whole by the world her husband’s thrown her into. The clothes she wears aren’t hers. The maids who aid her in her look down on the humility she once prided herself in having. Emma isn’t even her real name. She’s the creation of another man’s domestic fantasies. In the midst of middle age, she’s at a crossroads. Will she be able to continue living a comfortable lie, or would she be happier losing everything she’s come to know in favor of a return to her roots?
Against sound judgment does she use infidelity as her best method of escape, and as it goes for the majority of soap operas which drape themselves across the silver screen within the century of their cinematic dominance, the repercussions of trading all for nothing oft have tragic results. But surprising is the way Guadagnino — at least until the film’s fabulously overwrought final scene — has made a Sirk soap without all the bubbles.
Shaded in understatement, the life-sized highs and lows which shake these characters don’t so much seem to be keyed-up until we really think about how coincidental it is that Emma’s daughter is in the process of coming out of the closet; that Emma thinks it’s a good idea to have an affair with Edo’s best friend (Edoardo Gabbriellini); that the family business might be sold to greedy magnates; that someone dies at the movie’s climax after a gasping revelation leaves them too stunned to physically control themselves. If I Am Love starred Bette Davis and were directed by a William Wyler sort — really anyone with convention on the brain — it’d be the biggest box office hit of 1939.
Being headlined by Swinton and co-written and directed by arthouse titan Guadagnino, though, sold is a cerebral sudser. Remarkably human for a movie so other, it escapes the trappings of insufferability and invites voyeuristic glimpses into the life ofa woman on the verge. That she happens to be surrounded by a simultaneous display of momentousness and tradition isn’t much her fault. Guadagnino, however brazenly in love he is with ‘70s-era Buñuel displays of luxury, is just telling it like it is. Swinton, extraordinary, doesn’t so much wear Emma like one of her posh mini-dresses as she does embody her.
It’s the small details that count, and I Am Love works harder than any melodrama should have to. Slowly but surely does the editing become increasingly fractured as Emma’s life starts to spiral out of control. The music inches louder in volume until it practically explodes during the highwire finale. I love the moment at the end of the opening dinner party that sees Edoardo pass off a deeply personal gift because it isn’t as extravagant as others’ meaningless presents. (He prefers one’s throwing away of Benjamins to them giving their hearts away, thus vocalizing the Recchi family's far removal from reality.) And I love the way the most passionate sex scene between Emma and Antonio noticeably sees her stripping away her armor of wealthy superiority, serving as an ingenious visual representation of her transformation.
And so much more about I Am Love is comparatively ingenious. It deconstructs the age-old formula of the soap opera and injects it with a much-needed blending of exhilaration and heart. Sometimes it struggles to completely subvert the genre it’s picking apart — the climactic death is a little too 1957 for my tastes — but there’s no denying the astonishing work done by Guadagnino and Swinton. With their third collaboration, this year’s A Bigger Splash, standing as one of 2016’s best, a hope hangs in the air that their professional relationship will advance as the decades pass. They seem to understand each other, and a partnership as conducive as Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti’s or Mike Nichols' and Meryl Streep's continues to be a rarity. These two happen to have the chops necessary for reincarnation. A-