Eye For Film >> Movies >> I Am Love (2009) Film Review
Speaking about I Am Love, Tilda Swinton said: “Overcoming the idea of oneself, as created by society, has been one of my main interests since Orlando.” In that earlier film - based on a novel by Virginia Woolf - Swinton’s character self-reflected by seeing how society views her through different time periods and even a gender change. In I Am Love, Emma (Swinton) connects with love as a revolutionary force and throws off the shackles of a persona forced on her by circumstance. It also has shades of Woolf – a woman determined to uncover her true star in a world where the socially accepted roles are simply not enough.
The film is set in the upper-middle class world of Milan - an environment of exquisite luxury and good taste - but this is not the simplistic attack on bourgeoisie we might at first expect. Working out the underlying moral fabric requires effort, but is richly rewarded. Love, or Emma, is no martyr to idealism. Revolution (of the social order) – or love – can only be justified by its success. Even the cinematic temptation to tragedy will extolled and then dashed through with a sword.
Russian-born Emma is Tancredi’s wife. Tancredi co-inherits the family textile fortune with his son Edo. Emma, although head of the household, is something of a show wife, with style and authority, but no clearly defined role in terms of business or of culture. The traditions and values of Tancredi’s father for business have maybe skipped a generation, passing to the untried Edo. While the cultural baton has passed to his sister and artist-photographer, Betta.
Secondary characters provide clues to the theme. Edo’s friend Antonio is an innovative, high-class chef. Cuisine elicits a life-fulfilling passion in him for perfection and meaning. And Betta has a life of her own of which the parents suspect little. “Only you love me for who I really am,” she tells Emma.
A superficial reading of I Am Love could leave the viewer with the impression of tragedy in which love has terrible consequences. It is essential to analyse what one actually sees (rather than a Hollywood ending that would have emphasised different points entirely). One can then imagine conversations over glasses of chablis, berating the section where the film goes ‘oh so Lady Chatterley,’ oblivious to how the film attacks that very same self-satisfied air of culture without visceral involvement. Less sophisticated cinemagoers could feel even more frustrated at the ‘missed opportunities’ for histrionics, the emotional ‘involvement’ that comes from more manipulative screenwriting.
I Am Love is social melodrama in the best traditions of Italian cinema. It lines up, surprisingly, more with works like L’Avventura and that film’s quest for self, than the compassionate criticism of an elite class in Il Gattopardo (The Leopard). In I Am Love, good taste and refinement is simply the medium for those with an ability and wherewithal to appreciate it – epitomised by Tancredi’s father and his son, but perhaps not Tancredi himself. It carries no moral connotation. Empty shells on the other hand, form without substance, ultimately and unknowingly seeks its own destruction.
I Am Love has an arresting and rather beautiful romance at its heart - one that becomes a striking metaphor for finding one’s true course in life. It is ascetically ‘thinking person’s cinema’ yet lovers of fine things can luxuriate in the sumptuous sets and costumes (Silvia Fendi, third generation of the famous luxury brand, was also an associate producer on the movie). Music is by Pulitzer Prize winning composer John Adams, and the perfectly choreographed closing scenes have almost operatic intensity.
Swinton’s Emma is no modern-day Madame Bovary. Style, plot and execution are far less predictable than they seem. Clichés of rich-poor, virgin-whore, as well as cinematic tropes that have become stale are effortlessly avoided. Confusing feelings are not indicated by fast cuts, but by unrelentingly staring at the character's struggle in a long take.
This is visual acting at its best, with Swinton powerfully showing what is going on in the character's mind without it having to be spelled out in the script. There are moments of exultation when she can barely contain herself and moments when she struggles to stay on course and moments when she is torn, at the climax of the film. We find ourselves transfixed by her face in the bathroom - a place of privacy, where she can almost admit to herself the jubilation at a stolen kiss. There is difficult self-examination in the midst of events. When Tancredi summons damnation in the words: “You don’t exist,” she has passed the point where she might cling to merely existing. Freedom is the power to ‘go,’ and to ‘do.’
Some might complain that the deaths are not dramatic enough, the cinematography not stark enough to make us gasp in awe every few seconds at the beautiful surroundings or the dialogue not self-explanatory enough. I was surprised to read as eminent a film critic as the Guardian’s Philip French describe Emma’s final feelings as ‘guilt’. To misread such a key element of the story is tantamount, I felt, to missing the point altogether. But I am pleased, at least, that he enjoyed it. And this is one of the film’s triumphs, that even many audiences who find it slightly lacking will admit that they have watched something rather special. Which in itself might be enough to justify a second viewing.Reviewed on: 13 Apr 2010
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