There are only 10 stories, so the saying goes, and the repressed, restricted, married woman having an affair with a younger man is one of them. The film I Am Love is such a story, but star and producer Tilda Swinton and director Luca Guadagnino explore it in such a way as to immerse viewers in the experience and make us complicit in the action. In the beginning, the viewer is kept separated from any understanding of what might yet come to pass. Underlying the opening credits are images of snowy statues and classical buildings. Street signs and modern forms orient the audience to the current time, but there is precious little movement. These could be still photographs, if not for the falling snow and the occasional pedestrian making his way to some unknown destination. This is a frozen world, frozen in temperature and in time.
The Recchi family is also frozen inside their fortress-like mansion. They are a wealthy Milanese family, and the household servants move with factory precision to prepare for a big event. The addition of a guest sends the matriarch and her housekeeper back to the seating chart. If they were costumed in period garb, these scenes could occur at any time in history. In fact, the name Recchi rhymes with the Italian word for “old.” But there is something off about Emma Recchi’s Italian. Is it because she is played by an actress for whom Italian is not the first language? It's difficult to pick up for the English speaker, but phrases of Russian filter in-she's an immigrant. There are gestures of affection, between the mother, father, and three adult children, but are they truly affectionate, or are they gestures? Once Grandpa Eduardo and Grandma Rori have arrived, we find she is as well preserved as the mansion, with her fashionable thinness and suspiciously taut face. The event is Eduardo’s birthday, and he is not pleased with his granddaughter Betta’s gift of a photograph. She always gives him a drawing, and he’s thrown by “novelties.” Yet he announces that he is retiring and leaving his business not only to his son, Tancredi, but also to his grandson, Edo. By this point, the viewer has begun to live the scene along with the characters. Eduardo does not explain why he has made that choice. The viewer is left to wonder along with those at the dinner table, what just happened? And why?
Edo has just lost a race of some sort, and the winner, a chef friend of Edo’s named Antonio, comes by to deliver a cake. Edo introduces his friend to his mother, and she is struck. She retires to her room, having seen that the party is successfully launched. She separates herself from the family. Some months later, she finds evidence that her daughter Betta is in a relationship with a woman. This discovery, along with her daughter later coming out to her, is Emma’s introduction to passion that transcends taboo.
There is another party. Edo is announcing his engagement to his girlfriend, and Antonio is catering. Emma and Antonio meet again in the kitchen, and Antonio sends a special plate up to her, closeted in her space upstairs. Later on, she chooses to lunch with her mother-in-law and future daughter in-law at Antonio’s restaurant, and has a transcendent experience. As she eats, she is bathed in light, and the extreme close-ups pull the viewer in to her point of view. The shots go on and on as she raptures in the taste of the food, and the effect is that of frozen time again – the moment that is so crystal clear it seems to go on forever. When he comes out to speak to them, she can hardly look at him, but upon leaving, she goes back to tell him how wonderful everything was. She learns he grows his own vegetables near San Remo, where he and Edo will set up a restaurant.
Is it one of those “food movies” like Big Night? Yes, but only in the sense that the food, as art, stands in contrast to the old art forms like painting represented by the Recchi family. The dishes are created only as needed for the event, and are consumed, although sometimes cherished, but then they are gone. The chef must then create again.
Betta returns from school in London, and will have an exhibit in Nice. Emma goes to San Remo on the way to Nice to visit her daughter, and sees Antonio. She impulsively follows him, loses her nerve and stops, then changes her mind and continues on. She is human; she has fears and doubts. She bumps into him after losing sight of him, and accepts an invitation to the land where the restaurant will go. As Antonio drives her in his truck, the camera is directed straight ahead in the character’s point of view. We are familiar with this sensation, turning neither to the left nor to the right for fear that moving will break the spell. If one of them regains their senses, the affair and the magic will be gone.
There is also a scene from Antonio’s point of view. Antonio, having met Emma Recchi at her home, sees her enter his restaurant. She drops her bags and they passionately kiss. When they are interrupted by her son Edo, the viewer thinks that the couple is caught, until it is shown that the entire scene was the Antonio’s fantasy. Not only do we understand his state of mind in regards to Emma, we feel his fear at being discovered.
When they make love, it’s filmed quite explicitly. The sex is there because it’s important. It’s important to Emma, and it’s messy and not precious about the naughty bits. By filming explicitly and by using extreme close up, the director pulls in the audience to the characters’ points of view rather than keeping the voyeuristic distance.
They are of course discovered. Antonio makes a fatal mistake by serving Edo’s favorite dish. Only Emma could have taught him how to prepare it, so Edo puts that together with the other snippets of clues to deduce what has happened. They shout at each other in Russian. The betrayal is not against Emma’s husband so much as it is against her son. She has kept secrets and has done this with his friend. There is a tragic death.
Before the first dinner party, Emma’s husband Tancredi helps Emma get her jewelry on, as if he’s girding her for battle. In the countryside, Antonio helps her off with her shoes, her clothes and her jewelry. She sheds her identity as a Recchi. At the end of the film, after she has fled the graveside, Tancredi helps her put her shoes back on. But this circle does not close. She tells him, “I love Antonio,” as taut as a violin string, and he says she does not exist. She flees. She literally runs into the house and begins to throw her belongings together. Without a word, sobbing, her trusted housekeeper, perhaps her best friend, helps her.
Ebert famously says that it is not what it is about, but rather it is about HOW it is about what it is about. This film is one of those slow European films that Sarah Palin complained about, and it is nearly perfect. I haven’t even gotten into the surprises—Rori speaks flawless English. Do the Recchi’s have a history of importing their wives? Tilda Swinton is mocked as some sort of alien from another planet with her extraordinary height and features. Her alien-ness serves her well in a role of otherness, but it’s her talent that serves her in a role of tenderness and passion.