As far Euro-histrionics go, I Am Love is well-heeled, buttoned-up passion that revels in the sensual — shrimp is eaten with near orgasmic delight, rooms are sumptuously lit to accent their impeccable taste, lips linger on flesh, snow delicately falls on Milan's picturesque avenues. The men are all clean lines and expensive suits, the women are walking benedictions to understated fashion, and Tilda Swinton is the resplendent eye in this storm of aesthetic perfection. Still, for all director Luca Guadagnino's visual style and artful compositions, the film is a pastiche of pseudo-Shakespearean melodrama and high-brow adultery.
Luckily, there's Swinton, who bravely and effortlessly gives herself to the script's baroque affectations, convincing us that Food Network viewers are just a few succulent bites away from jumping into bed with the cook. It's an incredible performance filled with the depth, commitment and passion the rest of Guadagnino's film lacks.
We are behind closed doors with the Italian aristocracy. At the Recchi mansion, an elaborate birthday dinner is in full swing for the family's patriarch, Edoardo (Gabriele Ferzetti). "It will take two men to replace me," he says in a foreshadowing toast. And before you know it, his heirs are struggling with the family's fortune. Greedy Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) is mostly interested in selling off the business and making as quick a buck as possible. Grandson Edo (Tancredi's boy) doesn't want the responsibility his granddad has willed to him and instead decides to open a restaurant with his gentle pal Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). That's where Tancredi's Russian wife Emma (Swinton) comes in. After sampling Antonio's cuisine, she gets a taste for the chef as well. Her loveless marriage has left her hungry for romance and passion, and she dives into the affair without shame or regret. Of course, the lovers are eventually discovered and all hell breaks loose.
On the surface, all the Sirk-like elements are there — swelling music, romantic stares, melodramatic plot turns — but very little impresses. What should be tragic feels muted and detached because we simply don't care. It's not that the characters aren't interesting; it's that their emotions never come to life. Only Swinton registers as a living, longing human being — and still she's a shallow creation. No fault of the actress, who gives it her all. Guadagnino is so caught up in his opulent trappings that he forgets to invite us into his character's lives. Worse, he equates sexual longing for love and female desire for ruinous sin. I Am Love descends into third-act manipulations that likely seemed inevitable to the director but mostly come off as the malicious consequences of authorial contrivance. Are we expected to fret over the disintegration of a bad marriage? Is Edo so pure that his mother's dalliances are reason enough for his ridiculous overreaction? How Italian, the film seems to say.
While it's swell that I Am Love doesn't indulge in the bald-faced punitive moral judgments that usually accompany these tales of upper-class infidelity, the audience shouldn't mistake that for enlightened feminism. Guadagnino wants to have it both ways, loyally remaining by Emma's side even as he shamelessly casts her into the gutter. While it's easy to get lost in his over-the-top stylizations and Swinton's committed performance, there's no getting around that this film is as pretentious as it is disdainful.
Showing at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.