Elevate Difference

I Am Love

The story is simple—and familiar, at least to feminists: years after being plucked from her home, stripped of her individuality, and thrust into a loveless marriage, a woman is shocked back to life and inspired to flee. But from A Doll's House to Titanic, it's not so much about the story itself as it is about how it's told. The "doll" of I Am Love is Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton), a Milanese transplant who, upon arriving from Russia years before, inherited both a husband and the wealth of his prosperous family business. Being the matriarch-in-waiting of the elite Recchi clan is a privilege for Emma, complete with a sprawling mansion and a slew of servants, but one that comes with the price of a stifling lack of privacy, not to mention the complete loss of her identity.

Of course, it's not clear that all this is going on in the film, at least not at first. The way director Luca Guadagnino decides to approach Emma's story is the opposite of obvious, even experimental at times. For the first twenty minutes or so, it's not even clear that it's Emma's story, as the camera maintains a cold detachment from everyone, even allowing objects to partially obstruct its view, like a hidden surveillance. As the Recchi clan gathers around the dining room table for a formal dinner, Emma fades into the background, almost more so than the family's servants. Then, after Emma meets her son's friend and potential chef Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a seemingly innocuous introduction, Guadagnino starts to ease us closer and closer to her, finally arriving at a crescendo of close-ups when she samples his food for the first time. The meeting of Antonio, who will soon become her lover, and the way it is shot, beautifully marks Emma's transition from a sterile, colorless life to something brighter, more vibrant, and more immediate.

Emma and Antonio's scenes together are a sensory assault, the robust, invasive music and the sounds of nature rising in counterpoint to a similar crescendo at Emma's most dramatic revelations. Their first kiss is impressionistic, and their love scenes are experiential rather than voyeuristic. While revealing, they are not graphic or gratuitous but sensual and deeply erotic. (Afterward, my friend remarked that Hollywood could take a couple of pointers from Guadagnino on how to shoot sex.)

I Am Love is terribly rich, and not just for its style. Although it is Emma's story, there is so much more going on in the film. Emma's children provide interesting foils for her: daughter Betta (Alba Rohrwacher) is following her heart into the arms of another woman, while son Edo (Flavio Parenti) is about to enter a marriage based mostly on sex. It is fascinating to realize, as the film progresses, just how much of their spontaneity and spirit was inherited from their mother.

In stories such as these, and throughout film history, the unfaithful woman is typically punished for her infidelity. When an unexpected tragedy befalls the Recchis at the height of Emma's affair, it seems that this will be her fate as well. Interestingly though, she takes this devastation as an almost needed inspiration to follow her heart and abandon her marriage.

I Am Love is certainly an experience. The director and cast are so deeply committed to inhabiting the film's world and telling its story that you can't help but get pulled right in with them. Like the best films, it makes you feel like you've been somewhere, or at least been through something, and it takes a while after the credits have rolled to readjust your eyes and return to the real world.

Written by: Caitlin Graham, June 25th 2010