I Am Love is a curious film. It is a melodrama that uses little dialog. It is a character study that targets three different characters in a family at the same time. It is a beautifully acted film that values artistic design and score over a clear portrayal of any character. I Am Love is less a film than a portrait of a family in motion. You get what you want to get out of the film and nothing more.
Tilda Swinton stars as Emma Rechi, a woman who was whisked away from her native Russia twenty years ago to marry an Italian business man (Pippo Delbono’s Tancredi Rechi). She has three grown children: daughter Betta (Alba Rohrwacher), sons Gianluca (Mattia Zaccaro) and Edoardo, Jr. (Flavio Parenti). Betta is going off to art school in London and Gianluca and Edoardo are joining the family textile business; Edoardo has been named co-owner of the company with his father Tancredi.
The film concerns itself with unfulfilled desires. The Rechi’s are a very formal family. They host elaborate dinner parties with a large serving staff. They employ numerous live-in housekeepers, including head housekeeper Ida (Maria Paiato). All the family members have to concern themselves with is maintaining appearances. The melodrama comes from each member of the family wanting something they cannot have without tarnishing the reputation of the family.
This is first expressed through Betta. While she has an adoring admirer, she realizes that she is in love with her art teacher, another woman. She can tell Emma this because Emma is not so bound by the traditions of the Rechi; Betta herself admits that she can’t tell anyone else because of what will happen to her for stepping out of tradition. Edoardo, Jr. announces a desire to open a restaurant with new friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a chef. Emma, too, understands her son’s dream and supports him. The only interests left outside of Emma’s reach are those of her husband and other son; they want to sell the family business and relaunch it as a global brand. Emma cannot be involved as she, by her Russian heritage, is an outsider.
In trying to assist her children, Emma discovers her own unfulfilled desire: love. Namely, a love for Antonio. He seduces her through his cooking and she cannot turn back. With Emma harboring all of the emotional and creative secrets of her family, she faces enormous pressure to keep up tradition even though none of the Rechis are satisfied with every nuance any longer.
I Am Love is presented as a series of chapters. The film opens with a dinner party that establishes the rhythm of the film. All life in the house revolves around perfection. Ida is conducting every member of the house staff to set off a perfect celebration for family patriarch Edoardo, Sr. The purpose of the evening is to announce a business decision, but everything is framed in context of the family. It is tradition to bestow ownership to the next generation through elaborate ritual. Only Emma shows any flexibility in placing her son Edoardo’s date in the seating arrangement without complaint. She also supports Betta’s shift from drawing to photography even when Edoardo, Sr. rejects the gift of her first framed landscape photo. Before the party has finished, Emma voluntarily retires to her room, but not before Edoardo, Jr. introduces her to Antonio. This twenty minute scene establishes everything you need to know to understand the narrative of the film. Every chapter that follows builds upon these relationships and familial rules.
If there is a flaw in I Am Love, it is that the story is too subdued. There is so much bubbling below the surface that it’s easy to miss all the details of the story. If the issues became more pronounced in dialog or action or even symbolism, the ending would sing. The film is called a melodrama because of the final scenes where everything collides. What would have been accomplished with a wave of a hand or turn of a lip is amped up to coarse dialog and frenetic displays of emotion. Director Luca Guagdagnino relies too heavily on visual storytelling to deliver a realistic emotional payoff for the audience. Everything that happens on screen can be easily explained afterwards, but that explanation needed to be readily apparent for this kind of film to succeed.
This is not to say the visual storytelling falls flat. It is marvelous. The true star of the film is the art direction. So much is expressed through the use of props and color in the film. Before Antonio appears in the film, everything on the table is muted–beige, white, yellow, gold–especially the food. However, every dish Antonio serves fills the screen with color–pink prawns, green sauce, orange garnish–and joy. The one dish that Edoardo, Jr. loved more than any other, ukha (a Russian fish soup), is transparent. He, too, falls for Antonio’s cooking, filled with thick, heavy ingredients and cunning layered twists on culinary formulas.
And then there is the art book that explains the entire visual philosophy of the film. When Emma first pursues Antonio, she stumbles into a little book shop in a small Italian town. She thumbs through an art book and stops on a chapter called “Colore Como Vida.” A literal translation is “color as the life,” though I believe the intention is “color is life” or “color brings life.” The film opens in almost black and white footage leading to the subdued color scheme of the party. As Betta, Edoardo, Jr., and Emma begin to explore their passions, the film explores more colors. The world outside of the Rechi home is always more colorful than life in the house, but even those hues are painted more vibrant when the more adventurous family members pursue life.
I Am Love is a beautiful film. That goes without question. Whether or not it succeeds as a film depends on how much a viewer will invest in the narrative. The film presents external beauty over internal emotion and thought. The few moments where emotion takes over are presented through physicality, not words. The film is like staring at an ever-changing painting for two hours. You can interpret it however based on whatever visuals you are drawn to. You can only take away what you choose to see.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.