At the conclusion of I Am Love, just as the end credits were beginning to shine on the screen, the old women sitting behind me were beginning to complain about the the story, as the linear narrative trajectories of the plot seemed to lead…well… where did it lead? What exactly happened? The son dies, Tilda Swinton tells her husband that she's been unfaithful and in love with the handsome cook, the women all start to cry, and then she runs out of the luscious Milan house…and… well, you have a musical crescendo, and then…hmmm. "Jeez…what was that?" one of the women asked her moviegoing friend. "I don't know. Strange movie. Is that an ending?" "I wish they'd show us what happened."
This is not necessarily a rare occurrence in Edina theatres, where old women flock to…well…"Old Women Pictures." I recall a similar thing at the end of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette in 2006, where Coppola cuts from Marie's face looking out beyond Versailles as her coach strode along towards a bleak future, to the empty bedroom of the opulent palace, shattered by the revolution at hand, but silent save for the new wave beats of The Cure’s “All Cats Are Gray” on the soundtrack while the credits began. "I wanted to see some heads get cut off," one of the women said. Her companions all agreed. Heads should have rolled. So it was with I Am Love. The director should have told us exactly what happens, or at least had the courtesy to kill everyone so that we can forget about the mystery. There's even a little teaser in the middle of the end credits, which excited my elder companions behind me. "Oh, here we go…" But the image, of two lovers in a cave, remained unresolved, vague, beautiful – non-explanatory. It just was. "Hmmm," they said together, and left the theater, shaking their beauty-shop heads.
I can't blame any general moviegoer, young or old, sophisticated or simple, for having such a reaction to a film like I Am Love. This kind of film is a rarity nowadays, not only in mainstream multiplexes, but also in specialty theaters, where the Miramax tropes of the 1990s only made mainstream film elements prettier and more ornate for the "arts and croissants with a cocktail" crowd. Audiences like to be told things and have everything explained, with mystery reduced to language and the concrete presence of words. But I Am Love's title is the answer to its befuddling riddle of resolution. Story is, we must remember, not necessarily plot, but may also be character, or in this film's case, as the title explains, emotion. The film itself is like a conscious being, addressing itself as Love, and its aspirations are to go beyond the bounds of narrative development – where we see a rich family undergo changes of business and sexual relationships – and into the realm of examining art's possibilities and what exactly art (movies, painting, photography, music, cooking) does for us. I Am Love is asking us to acknowledge its title, and with that acknowledgement, we ask why it is that we go to see films in the first place.
The film opens at a family patriarch's birthday party. This patriarch, the owner of a great firm, is going to retire and pass his legacy onto his son, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), and grandson Edoardo (Flavio Parenti), knowing that the business will be safe in the hands of bloodline heirs who will keep the things family-owned and controlled as economics rapidly change at the turn of the new century. The delicateness with how the birthday ritual is handled by director Luca Guadagnino with a unique selection of camera angles and carefully calibrated camera movements injects the film with a kind of self-awareness, where we notice its expressiveness of Form as it moves, accompanied by the music of John Adams. The film is singing to us as its frames wheel along.
The opening ritual gives us a general introduction to the various family members, but it also serves a purpose of allusion that connects the film to other artistic touchstones. Many people will naturally think of The Godfather trilogy, which open with similar rituals, but the very name "Tancredi" will tip the viewer off that Guadignino is probably thinking of Luchino Visconti's 1963 masterpiece, The Leopard, about changing socioeconomics in the mid-19th century, the character of Tancredi (played by Alain Delon in Visconti's film) being something of a two-faced charlatan, fighting for the revolution at one instant, while socially performing so he can simply stay at the top of the ladder the next. Visconti, while making the picture, was thinking about rituals and the processes of social change over time, perhaps influenced just as much by the world portrayed by Thomas Mann's 1900 novel Buddenbrooks as he was by the original novel The Leopard (Visconti loved Mann, coming to adapt Death in Venice in 1971, and planning a never-realized adaptation of The Magic Mountain). Buddenbrooks opens with a ritual very much like the one we see in I Am Love, where multiple generations come together one night, private dramas slowly play out underneath the theatricality of social presentation, and the family's business, which must be maintained, is threatened by an environment that is growing more global. In the 1830s-1840s of Buddenbrooks, the family firm of a mercantile business in Lubeck is compromised by the emerging European Union, while in I Am Love, a similar kind of business is possibly crumbling under the pressure of late-capitalist globalization.
At the heart of Mann, Visconti, and I Am Love (and Coppola for that matter) are the conflicts of the larger and more impersonal mechanics of society versus the individual yearnings within the living components making up that grand machine of family, politics, and business. The individual expresses himself or herself through passion, whether in sport – such as Eduardo, who has lost in a competition earlier on this day, which will lead him to focus more fully on being a good businessman – or more especially in the creative act of art. We note the daughter, Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher), whom the grandfather believes wants to be a painter, but she finds herself better suited for photography, which kind of irks him. Perhaps she wants her art to get closer to reality than a painting can. This family, the Recchis, has a long history of what looks like art collection, as the grand Milan house is ornately decorated with many pieces that must have cost a lot of money to acquire. But that's another issue the film is addressing: the mere acquisition of Art, where it is a passive affair, a frivolity enjoyed by a couple of elderly moviegoers on a Saturday afternoon, versus something with a particular aura, an expression of self, a communicative act. Artists and Art Collectors are different, it appears, though that is not to say those of us who consume art are restricted from entering and partaking in its passion, suffering and sympathizing in its ecstasy.
This idea is shown in the film's affair storyline, where Tancredi's wife, Emma (Tilda Swinton) begins to understand that the poor cook, Eduardo's friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), is in love with her. His love is expressed in the care he takes in preparing, sculpting, his food – something not merely to be consumed the same way those old ladies wish to consume the movie, but something with which one is in dialogue, connecting. The love affair is illicit, and it is a plot conceit we have seen in a thousand other stories, surely, but the way Guadagnino handles it over the course of his picture, every moment, every caress, every hallucination of longing and guilt, photographed and edited with immaculate care and preternatural sensibility, makes not the incident the important element, but the emotion, the physical element underneath the skin and providing the gooseflesh. Antonio is a Creator, a Communicator; Tancredi is a Collector, a mere Consumer.
Emma finds this love entrancing because she too was one of Tancredi's collections. He was collecting art in Russia when he met her and decided to take her home and marry her. This is not to say that Tancredi can be simplified into a hollow rich man who takes his wife – and the art he collects – for granted. He is what his class has made him, and the larger generational forces compel him to act differently from his own father. After the patriarch has died, Tancredi is all too willing to sell the family business off to ensure lasting wealth and to enable the company to grow with the changing world. The business will expand beyond the local and into the global market, much to the chagrin of Eduardo, who appears to be something of an idealist. Each of these characters is trapped by circumstance, the larger surrounding forces making them react the way they do to change. Tancredi simply does not speak the language that Emma is finding in her relationship to Antonio and his food, or that Elisabetta is realizing in her photography (where she is expressing her secret lesbianism). We notice on the television, as Tancredi and Emma lie together watching in their bedroom, that she is entranced by what is on screen, while he is rather impersonal. The film on the television is Jonathan Demme's 1993 picture Philadelphia, and the scene being showcased is the moment when Tom Hanks' AIDS-afflicted character is ecstatically rhapsodizing about how opera affects him, connecting to every emotional facet of his life. Emma instantly understands this, as does the viewer caught in the spell of I Am Love (regardless of whether or not one is a fan of Demme's film). Tancredi, meanwhile, changes the channel.
As practicalities doom the family business to an impersonal global superstructure (where "capital is democracy," we are informed), the secrets of Emma are revealed through the unspoken art of Antonio's cooking – Eduardo learns her secret, feels betrayed, and in his angry passion has an accident that leads to a detrimental injury. The realities of death, looming over the dreamlike entrancement of escape, quash discussion and I Am Love recedes away from plot in the desperation of pure emotion: the what is not important, the why is not important, just the how, what we see and what we feel. This is the beatitude communicated in its ending where the film's content is relayed within its form, and the film seeks to become more than a plot, as all great films should, and ascends the heights of pure emotion.
This film is a testament to the great talent of Tilda Swinton, a candidate for one of our greatest living actresses. Androgynous and never a sex symbol (some disagree with me), she hurls herself into the nakedness of Emma without a second thought, never speaking a word of her native English in this Italian film (though she still plays an immigrant; she's from Russia, however, not the UK). Beginning in the avant garde films of Derek Jarman, and the sex-changing title role in Sally Potter's bizarre Orlando (1993), Swinton maneuvered herself into the mainstream as the dangerously determined women in films like The Deep End and Julia, the "cold bitch" in Burn After Reading, the icy yet vulnerable woman who has a love affair with Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the fleshy corporate pawn in Michael Clayton, for which she deservedly won an Academy Award. Swinton is the kind of actress that I don't believe will age, because of her ability to grapple any kind of role, whether young or aged, villainous or noble, cold or passionate. I Am Love is a film that she helped Guadagnino develop (she is credited as a producer), and it may be her most unique triumph to date.