by Glenn Heath, Jr. Film Horizon Line

I Am Love — Luca Guadagnino

July 19, 2010

Most films never expand past their 16:9 rectangular tombs, passively projecting until they inevitably fade to black. But a film like I Am Love transcends these boundaries and exists beyond the screen. Luca Guadagnino’s epic melodrama shifts and squirms, pushes and pulls like an organism demanding evolution, challenging notions of perspective while illuminating what’s just off-screen and out of reach. It’s a thematic beast thirsted by desire and quenched by tragedy, simultaneously glorious, incomplete, ambitious, and incredibly flawed. It lives and breathes through the eyes of Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton), a Russian-born beauty married into a powerful Italian dynasty and now overwhelmed with wealth, power, and influence.

Surface virtues mask an emptiness that pervades Emma, hollowing her out one compromise at a time. Guadagnino focuses intently on Emma’s heightened state of being, charting her formalized rejuvenation after falling in love with one of her grown son’s friends, a chef named Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). The film maximizes this trajectory, merging three senses of perception into one fluid mechanism of cinema, contrasting and complimenting elements until they burst through the screen in fascinating and problematic ways.  “I Am Love” is best tackled in sections in an attempt to briefly hold down its divergent parts.

Sight/Image. Milan in winter appears to be frozen in place, stuck in a permanent gaping long shot. A cityscape of cramped buildings caked in ice and sleet, sprawled out beneath a dour grey sky. This monochromatic force field opens I Am Love, giving way to an interior display of impressive Italian wealth — a dinner party for Grandpa Recchi (Gabriele Ferzetti), who’s ready to announce his successor. Emma, her husband Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), and their grown children move methodically through the hallways of their intricate home with almost mechanical precision. In one haunting moment, Tancredi dresses his wife in brilliant family jewelry, a tradition as old and seemingly practiced as their marriage. Guadagnino fills these early scenes with a constantly roving visual field, zooming, panning, and tilting, as if his camera rests on a permanent swivel. The constant motion seems to echo Emma’s restlessness, apparent even during moments of surface joy and celebration. Hers is a muted existence, one where doubt remains internal and her family’s perception of her means everything.

San Remo in summer opens up at street level (in contrast to the aerial shots of Milan), tracking people and vehicles through its beautiful locale. Plants, trees, creeks, and flowers come into crisp focus, then blur with unflinching light flares and flashes. During a stopover in the city, Emma accidentally runs into Antonio, a talented chef with whom she obviously shares an attraction. Their love is first and foremost a visual awakening, an instinctual melodramatic vibration contrasting with the calculated monotony of her urban existence. The camera slows to revel in the warmth of their embrace, to enjoy the light filtering through tree branches, the water flowing down the rock face. A short rest overlooking a majestic grassy knoll is all it takes for Emma to embrace the purity Antonio represents.

Touch/Skin. Emma and Antonio’s affair predicates itself on the essence of touch, the evocative sensory overload of flesh brushing against flesh. That touch escalates as I Am Love progresses, culminating in one wildly surreal love scene set in the grass. Emma’s sweat, breasts, hair, and breath and Antonio’s torso, skin, beard, and facial contours enact a series of fragmented, erotic gestures. Emma transcends a cold love with her husband through an elemental and warm love in the mountains. During this moment, Guadagnino’s film morphs from being simply “pretty” into a more complex examination of emotional repression. But the motif of touch turns cold and harsh later in the film, consuming the beauty of the earlier moments when Tancredi attempts to hold Emma in bed in a completely benign moment of compassion, and then during a tragically ill-conceived finale by the pool. These moments contrast with the poignancy of Emma’s time with Antonio, creating a clear-cut emotional boundary for Emma to destroy.

Sound/Music. Any melodrama worth its salt uses sweeping music to create emotional responses at specifically timed moments. But I Am Love takes this a step further, paralleling John Adams’s rousing score, heard in moments of heightened circumstance, with a motif of deathly silence. This dichotomy ends up defining characters, motivations, and consequences much more so than visual symbolism. Emma often begins a scene feeling extreme elation then ends it crashing back down to entrapment. Guadagnino utilizes this layered sound design to articulate her arc, building in striking ambient sounds with Adams’s symphony of crescendos. Not merely a complementary element in this film, sound defines I Am Love, as its central aesthetic signifier. As Emma descends into a forlorn love hangover, her relationships with family and friends begin to fracture, not visibly, but audibly. Then, during the film’s silly denouement, sound becomes an alarm for greed, retribution, alienation, and finally redemption. Like most aesthetic devices in I Am Love, sound covers the spectrum of emotions, shifting with the tone of the scene.

Ending(s). If I Am Love never quite attains the cohesion it strives for, it at least comes close. A kaleidoscope of aesthetic ambition and emotional grandiosity, its efforts are impressive by any measure, yet the sum of its parts doesn’t really equal the whole. Unlike Emma’s massively stylized journey toward self-awareness, her downfall doesn’t resonate with quite the same cinematic weight. I Am Love ends on a suddenly dramatic note, an exit from reality of Norma Desmond-like proportions that permanently rips Emma from the suffocating lap of luxury. In a flash of blinding sunlight, her senses simultaneously open up and crescendo in one final dissolve, rejecting social standing and embracing a lovely form of individualism that’s been a long time coming.