“I Am Love” a Soap as High Art

PopcornBiz's Scott Ross is reporting from the annual film festival in Sundance, Utah, where new independent movies are unveiled.

“I Am Love,” starring Tilda Swinton at the top of her game, is a beautifully shot soap opera about an insular and wealthy Italian family and the tragedies that befall them.

Swinton is fantastic as Emma Recchi, the wife of a rich industrialist, who effectively renounced her Russian heritage when she moved to Milan with her new husband. It’s a demanding role that runs the gamut emotionally and involves quite a bit of rather intimate nudity. But as is her custom, she delivers, whether the moment calls for a subtle tremble of the chin or full-blown lust.

John Adams’ score is basically an amalgam of his greatest hits, covering “Lollapalooza” to “Nixon in China.” It’s incredibly propulsive – at times unnecessarily so – but when it’s on target, the effect is riveting, raising the emotional stakes. Swinton rightfully expressed her gratitude for his allowing the music to be used, a first for a feature film.

Director Luca Guadagnino loves to move the camera almost as much as he loves to hold it still for an extra beat. His ode to Hitchcock, a chase through the streets or Sanremo, is dizzying, like watching an Escher come to life. At other times he lingers on a moment to let the moment set in. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Guadagnino frequently focuses on the Recchis’ staff closing doors, drapes, whatever helps draw the line between themselves and the help or the outside. The boundaries the Recchis surround themselves with extend even to the driveway. Family pulls up right in front of the house, others – friends and lovers, even – come through another entrance and are told to walk the garden path to the house. As with the help, the message is clear: You are not one of us.

One of the threads throughout the film is food, how it is passed down, prepared to express love or to seduce, and the rituals involved. There’s a scene where Swinton is served a plate of prawns. The meat is translucent, the red stripes a bloody crimson.  The look on Swinton’s face when she bites into it is one of sexual gratification – you almost want to leave the two of them alone for a moment. Other than that one moment, the food is too often shot from an angle that obscures it. The one other dish that gets the proper focus appears to be a clear piece of rubber standing in for a bowl of fish broth. Considering the elevation of food culture over the past decade, it’s surprising that more people haven’t tried to film food porn – it’s day will soon come, no doubt.

Cinema nerds – the kinds of folks you typically find here at Sundance – will love this film. It’s beautiful, the music is great and Swinton is in top form. For the rest, it will be nothing more than a confounding ponderous two-hour melodrama.

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