If you can get over the image of Tilda Swinton reeling from sexually liberated bliss to the accompaniment of wasps and aphids, then I Am Love has plenty to offer. As in 2001’s The Deep End and last year’s Julia, Swinton gravitates to melodrama because it’s the one genre that warms her open-mouthed, pale-skinned hauteur. You look at Swinton and expect Isabelle Huppert, but she acts like Joan Crawford — a Joan Crawford with acting chops. As Emma Recchi, a Russian transplanted to Italy so thoroughly that she forgets her real name, Swinton is so overwhelmed by feeling that when she suffers and longs it’s got an extra kick.
A beautifully lit (Milan is shot as if the entire city is swathed in pollen and gold) and somewhat cumbersome homage to Luchino Visconti pasta fazoola like Senso and Rocco & His Brothers, I Am Love follows the fortunes of an immensely wealthy textile dynasty whose members slowly elude the destinies for which they were slotted. After the sly patriarch (played by Gabrielle Ferzetti in Burl Ives mode) cedes, with the foresight of King Lear, operating control of the industry to his son Tancredi (Pippi Delbono) and grandson Edo (Flavio Parenti), Tancredi realizes he’d rather sell the industry to a sinister-looking Sikh’s multinational investment firm, and Edo prefers to help his new best friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a chef of awesome talent, open a Sanreno restaurant specializing in extracting the “essences” of vegetables. Youngest daughter Elizabetta meanwhile moves to London to study art and commit to her lesbianism.
Writer-director Luca Guadagnino is alert to sensual nuance; his characters are nerve endings. Although it takes about an hour to understand who’s who and their relations to one another, Guadagnino throws enough red herrings and delicious clues to suggest the movie could have been three hours longer (and probably should have been). Erotic subcurrents run in every direction. The way he shoots Antonio and lingers over Edo’s prolonged caresses and how he chirps to family, “I’m totally in love with Antonio,” you’d think the two men would hook up eventually. Similarly, Guadagnino stages a wonderful scene between Elizabetta and Swinton by the villa swimming pool in which the mother accepts her daughter’s sexuality with a mixture of pain, rue, and empathy; when Swinton later appears with trimmed hair in the same room as Elizabetta, Guadagnino teases out the lesbian and incestual underpinnings without making too fine a point of it.
So rich is I Am Love that I wish Guadagnino had treated the Swinton-Antonio fuck sessions as peripheral, or as one more iteration of this family’s libidinous drives (their lavish dinners, taste in jewelry, and fiscal ruthlessness are manifestations of their lust). The sex scene I mentioned upthread takes place on a remote hillside, and while it’s satisfying to populate D.H. Lawrence’s travelogue classic Etruscan Places with human beings, all this Lawrentian liberation is a bit much, especially when Guadagnino lingers on Gabbriellini’s scruffy beard and long fingers (the erotic bliss also called to mind another screen classic). Swinton’s mother-in-law — a dowager with a stiletto smile and thick bracelets — gets enough screen time to register as a cool and potentially dangerous force but no more. Mattia Zaccaro sulks and pouts as the middle child Gianluca, perhaps disappointed that the screenwriters gave him nothing else to do. These are performers and performances worth following; instead we get a recreation of Vertigo and Douglags Sirk weepers even more florid than Far From Heaven.
One huge minus: John Adams’ oppressive score dares you to run screaming from the theater.