If nothing else it seems safe to say that Io sono l’amore sounds like an unusual prospect. A thoroughbred Italian creation the film centres on England’s own Tilda Swinton as she plays a Russian woman who now considers herself fully of Italy. Living up to her character’s varied history Swinton spends the entire film speaking Italian and Russian, two languages she apparently had no knowledge of prior to the film’s production. Still, she had plenty of time to learn since she and director Luca Guadagnino first conceived of this film eleven years ago. Some time between then and now the director also took the time to make a short documentary with Swinton entitled, Tilda Swinton: The Love Factory.
The story concerns the wealthy Recchi clan; Italian industrialists who found their success with their grandfather, Edoardo Recchi Snr (Gabriele Ferzetti). The film opens with a grand dinner party celebrating the aging patriarch’s birthday and it is here that he announces his successor. Unsurprisingly, control of the business will be handed to his loyal son, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), but a twist is added when joint authority is also granted to Tancredi’s son, Edoardo Jnr. (Flavio Parenti). Edoardo Jnr. is a young man of great passion who is obviously the apple of his grandfather’s eye. Spotting great talent in the cooking abilities of his friend, Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), Edoardo Jnr. takes it upon himself to help him open up a restaurant. Behind these main events a story of familial strife opens up with Tancredi’s wife, Emma (Swinton) taking centre stage. Faithful and assured as a representative of a wealthy family she soon finds herself falling for the earthy charms and escape offered by the much younger chef, Antonio.
Modern Italian cinema surely faces a particularly tough challenge in finding a voice separate of its own great history. Upon the conclusion of the Second World War the country produced some of the giants of the medium and successfully captured the world’s attention with many of its productions. Neo-realism opened the gates and when that movement reached its logical conclusion, or limits, new methodologies and artists were found; Antonioni’s L’avventura1 now largely recognised as a critical watershed in international art cinema. Spanning many epochs of the industry, from the earliest days of neo-realism to his later, grander tales, it seems this film wants us to call to mind the spirit of Luchino Visconti. Certainly the lavishness that marks some of his best loved work is present here.
Although the period is more modern than that found in Il gattopardo (The Leopard) the obvious atmosphere of luxury and wealth remains the same. If they’re not quite royalty as was Burt Lancaster’s clan in Visconti’s film there’s still no doubting that the Recchi’s are the picture of modern wealth and privilege. The finery of this modern age is simply more refined if no less indulgent. Guadagnino’s direction strives to maximise that sense of items and surfaces; of shine and of splendour. Throughout, the production allows for a few grand overviews of the Recchi’s villa but primarily focuses on small details and objects, shot in close-up with the rest of the world pushed out into a blurry otherness. The film expands this form to its people with cloistered frames and shallow planes of focus generating detached and distinct worlds that each family member occupies.
All this would be quite acceptable if the film ever managed to generate even the tiniest spark of emotional honesty. Unfortunately what we have here is a project so concerned with maintaining focus on formal details that it completely forgets to create any credible characters or interrelations between them. With eleven years to gestate it almost seems as if those involved came to know their own ideas so well that they forgot to leave them in the final cut. Keeping things within Italy you could argue that Nanni Moretti’s beautiful La stanza del figlio (The Son’s Room) is every bit as self-consciously composed but the difference is that all those details succeed in building to an emotional conclusion; one that validates and indeed masks the various structural conceits used along the way. In contrast I Am Love seems utterly lost when trying to flesh out its cast. As the narrative slowly unfolds it often genuinely surprises simply because the supposed signposts for each development are either isolated by their banality or else so overwrought that it’s difficult to take them seriously.
Case in point, Emma’s sexual awakening is ostensibly the result of a particularly well prepared prawn dish. The close-ups on the food, highlighting the aesthetic preparation and texture, are clearly designed to conjure up visions of sensuality and hedonistic release but the stylistic mechanics behind it are simply so rote that they could never adequately communicate the emotional awakening of the protagonist. Elsewhere, a lengthy sex scene falls flat because, alongside its lack of any meaningful foundation, the theory behind its design seems so lazily constructed as to collide fully with cliché. We get naked writhing bodies coupled with nature footage that could easily have been picked from a David Attenborough series or a Terrence Malick feature. So sexual release and awakening is like glistening dew-drops in grass and bugs climbing leaves. It’s all about context and if the film could only generate interest elsewhere we might be able to forgive it this clumsiness.
Key to the film’s narrative problems is the total non-representation of secondary characters. We see from the outset that family gatherings tend to break down into male and female groupings and that the two genders occupy almost entirely separate spheres. The men deal with business while the women entertain and see to domestic affairs. Old-world and patriarchal it may be but the script seems to lack any inkling that the women of the tribe find their place oppressive and stifling. A few references are dropped here and there, particularly to the ‘lower’ social class of young Edoardo’s girlfriend but these hardly amount to any larger statement with regards to the family’s general mechanics. Emma’s sole daughter, an artist by trade, seems to randomly break away from the group by becoming a lesbian; a process more realised by her cutting her hair short and trading in her dresses for pants and a sweatshirt than through any real scripting.
This seeming lack of dramatic struggle, which presides through the entire first half of the film, unbalances the second half completely and offers no resistance for later events to work against. With the crux of the events totally unhinged, the result is a story that seems, at its dramatic height, silly and rather petty. This becomes particularly noticeable in the final act as events try and take a turn towards the tragic but instead come off as self-serious and indeed comedic. The use of music, problematic throughout, is particularly noticeable here with the throbbing tones of John Adams’ score seemingly entirely at odds with the film itself. It’s a problem reminiscent of the use of another minimalist composer’s work in film, that of Philip Glass in Stephen Daltry’s The Hours. The music, complete and potent in and of itself, seems problematically overbearing when tied to images. The uneasy union becoming all the more noticeable in films like those just mentioned; those that lack solid dramatic cores of their own. At this point the music takes over, completely overpowers the image and a sequence that is meant as a powerful epiphany instead becomes a dramatic joke.
In other sections the problem seems to lie with a general lack of focus. Edouardo Jr. is unhappy with the way the business is being handled after his grandfather passes away. He feels that the history and legacy of the family firm is being sold down the river for pure profit. He may well be right but we’re offered virtually no insight either into the character of his grandfather, the business itself, the economy at large or the effects of Tancredi and co.’s apparently objectionable business plans. We’re simply flying blind and presumed capable of filling in the dramatic blanks simply because earlier films have done that sort of thing quite well. Indeed the entire project seems composed through a system of shorthand with the onus on the audience to work out the director’s intention through reference to other, basically better, films. It’s not simply a case of working in the wake of Visconti. In a sense it’s almost like we’re being treated to a shoddy postscript that someone else hooked onto his résumé. After all, what difference does it make that Emma was originally Russian before moving to Italy? She changed her name and feels herself to now be ‘fully Italian.’ You could draw parallels to Andrei Tarkovsky, to his exile from his homeland and the immediate result, Nostalghia; a film that captures an almost palpable sense of spiritual dislocation and isolation. It’s hard not to suspect that the director is hoping you might be able to draw this parallel since his own work seems bereft of any such potent material.
The end result is a sure disappointment since there seemed so many potential strengths within the initial premise. The actors all acquit themselves well with Swinton generally supporting the entire thing but, being honest about it, only she and perhaps two other people are allowed to develop any sort of momentum at all. The entire picture is scrappy and disjointed despite the obviously lovely photography and perhaps even self-conscious attention to detail. Although it may be a contentious comparison, it’s all vaguely reminiscent of the work of Stanley Kubrick or Paul Thomas Anderson. Reminiscent in that the thought process behind each and every shot and the technique called upon to capture them is clearly well informed and, from a theory standpoint, absolutely correct, but the grander project shows no understanding or interest in its characters or in honestly relating a story to the audience. To form a crude analogy what we’re left with is a film that is every bit as chic and elegant as the outfits Swinton sports throughout but it hangs not from a living, thinking person but from a stationery shop mannequin. We have here the illusion of human shape and form but nowhere can we glimpse the bare tenderness of a genuine life.
1 As a point of trivia Gabriele Ferzetti, who plays the elderly Edouardo Sr. in this film, played a lead role in Antonioni’s film.