I AM LOVE, striking attributes and hobbling flaws to the side, emerges as a clear labor of love from actress Tilda Swinton, who co-produced as well as stars, directed by her frequent collaborator Luca Guadagnino. Together the two worked on the project for eleven years before its release to critical acclaim and muted public response in 2009. The title comes from a line in “La mamma morta”, an aria sung in the 1896 opera “Andrea Chénier.”
The opera was set during the French Revolution, with nobility enmeshed in Fate. The film has a modern day haute bourgeosie family basking in fashionable luxury in Milan, heirs to a textile manufacturing business that has outlasted times good and bad (and profited from both). The clothes may be elegant, the table manners exquisite, the palatial home-as-museum settings begging for magazine layouts, but there is rot in the foundation, fraying civility in the hierarchal ties and the binding heart that is the mother (Swinton) is quietly breaking, bleeding from long-untended internal injuries. Rapturous relief brings calamity. *
I liked it (well, much of it), but this is another instance where the critics waterfall gush of rhapsodic superlatives (“See it by any means possible!” some dunce actually scribbled) reached extremes calling for medication. It’s a good film, not a great one, with laudable committed purpose and flashes of excellence self-handicapped by excess on one hand and wet wood in the other. In an odd way, the movie’s demonstrable strengths and undermining weaknesses mimic its story.
What works? First and foremost it’s another bravissima showcase for the continually surprising Swinton to display her genius for full-on immersion into character (displaying pretty much everything else Tinda while she’s at it). Her performance as the role-accepted trophy wife inexorably drawn to primal sensual awakening has a gradually accumulating power that reaches galvanizing apotheosis at the end—and to do it she learned both Italian and some Russian to boot. Old pro Gabriele Ferzetti (84 here) and jet-set icon Marisa Berenson add the gravitas of experience and verisimilitude. Since it’s Milan, and these shallow scions have money, you can’t go wrong with the costume design and art direction. Crafting his cinematography of the settings and locations, Yorick Le Saux captures the cool remove of assured wealth and some contrapuntal summer warmth of fleeting nature.
And yet…the direction from Signor Guadagnino too frequently indulges in baroque, pretentiously artsy camera jazz, forcing his otherwise hard-working cinematographer into quick pointless images serving no narrative purpose. He makes mediocre use of his outdoor locations, and the whole absurd orgasmic thing with the shrimp dish is camp masquerading as gravity. Chief supporting players Edoardo Gabbriellini (Swinton’s master chef lover) and Flavio Parenti (her spoiled son, bosom pal of the chef) are so lacking in charisma as actors and the writing for their characters is so lazy with motivation that it’s hard to give a smashed grape what happens to them. An overbearing music score ruins several scenes: the selections are all from modern classical composer John Adams, done prior to the film, and not related to it (‘modern classical composer’ ought give you pause anyway). It all moves slowly for 114 minutes—the first cut was 210 (thank God for editors).
Taking $4,170,000 to prepare, the worldwide tip came to $10,906,000. It did secure an Oscar nomination for Costume Design. Director Guadignino co-wrote the screenplay with Barbara Alberti (The Night Porter), Ivan Cotreano and Walter Fasono. The careful production design acknowledges Francesca Balestra Di Mottola. With Maria Paiato, Pippo Delbono, Alba Rohrwacher and Diane Fleri.
* There’s a certain smug voyeurism quotient to these periodic stories that chronicle the casual decay of Continental European family dynasties: the bored elegance and melancholy glamor have some vampire-behind-glass appeal. Off-shore, the Brit end of too-much-loot usually gets some qualifying Dignity to make their endless squabbling Royals more palatable. In the unholy New World, American empire wielders in the cinema are just plain crass. Find a long wall (I think China has one), line them all up, and….