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Tilda Swinton and Alba Rohrwacher in I Am Love.
Tilda Swinton and Alba Rohrwacher in I Am Love.

Film Friday

A period piece that heaves and creaks with false passion Add to ...

  • I Am Love
  • Directed by Luca Guadagnino
  • Written by Luca Guadagnino, Barbara Alberti, Ivan Cotroneo, Walter Fasano
  • Starring Tilda Swinton and Edoardo Gabbriellini
  • Classification: 18A

Class barriers, illicit sex, all that damned floral imagery - I Am Love might better have been called D. H. Lawrence Italian-Style. The setting may be contemporary Milan, but the film plays like a period piece, a throwback social melodrama in the Lawrentian mode, filled with his trademark excesses, those flights of poetic fancy, but with little of the gravity needed to keep the whole thing grounded. That's a tricky balancing act - even Lawrence was often guilty of writing bad Lawrence. Here, despite a superb cast and a fabulous look, the picture collapses under the weight of its lofty pretensions, especially in the black hole of the last act, where it topples into near-absurdity.

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The opening frames are an extended dinner party sequence (one of several), where director Luca Guadagnino inches his way from the city's snow-clad streets into the old-money mansion of the Recchi clan. The patriarch, a pompous Milanese industrialist, is both celebrating his birthday and announcing his successors, turning the keys to the corporate kingdom over to his son Tancredi and his grandson Edo. "It takes two men to replace me," roars the grizzled lion. As for the women, they know their place and are cemented into it - successive generations of beauties elegant in their haute couture, led by the matriarch Allegra (Marisa Berenson) along with the exquisite Emma (Tilda Swinton), the mother of Edo and his sister Bella. As the gala evening concludes with the transfer of power, the camera moves in for an extreme close-up of Emma's face, daring us to find any cracks in her perfect mask.

Flash-forward to several months later, when the first cracks appear and soon widen. Emma learns that her daughter has stepped beyond the bounds of convention to embark on a secretive affair with another woman. Far from disapproving, the mother is inspired to escape her own rich prison and to cultivate a deeper secret. Enter Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a close friend of Edo and a talented young chef, but still only a chef - far beneath the Recchis' social station. Yet Emma, a native Russian who married into the family, sees in Antonio the outsider she once was. Of course, she sees something else too - a chance at passion.

Their first kiss is stolen in an Edenic country garden outside the city - the film's pulse quickens and its score swells. When the kiss escalates into a steamy entanglement in the summer's heat, Guadagnino channels his inner Lawrence and really cranks up the volume. More extreme close-ups - of limbs, of flowers, of berries, of a lone ant creeping, a pert nipple beckoning. Glistening bodies are mounted, class barriers are surmounted, so expect trouble ahead, and expect it to come from Emma's rival for the handsome chef's affections - yes, her own boy, whose feelings for his male friend raise all those old questions about sons and lovers.

Which brings us to the void of the last act, and a tragic twist that seems just too ridiculously convenient. We aren't buying the plot's sudden lurch, although, in the midst of that refusal, it's impossible to resist what Swinton is selling. In a performance simultaneously restrained and exuberant, she plays peekaboo with her mask of propriety, passion vying with duty, her Russian soul peering out from behind an Italian veil. In this role, as in so many others in her career, Swinton is a force of gravity unto herself, credible even when the script isn't, solid even when the film implodes. In I Am Love, she is love - everything else is just an artsy flirtation.

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