I'm late to the party, I admit. But, man oh man, was it worth circling back for. I Am Love is so beautiful and lush in it's cinematography, that I had to step back and separate the feast for the eyes from the story, just to make sure I wasn't being falsely seduced by the pretty. What I found was an operatic story, that in the hands of someone other than Director Luca Guadagnino, it would have turned into melodramatic mush. But, along with the pitch-perfect reserve of Tilda Swinton, it truly delves into an inside look at the life of quiet desperation of a woman with everything and nothing. She has wealth, a beautiful home in Milan, a house full of servants, three lovely children, and a successful husband. But, again and again, she muses upon the fact that she traded in her identity and her passion for this privileged life. She poignantly says to her lover that she doesn't even remember her Russian name, having lived so long with the name (and identity) that her husband christened her with when he chose her so long ago.
Many critics (especially those in the US) slammed the movie as melodramatic, and this was not meant as a compliment. They noted the obvious wealth of the family as reason enough to dismiss the film as some fairytale having no meaning for the average soul, along with the super lush score and quasi-gothic coda. I disagree with this take. I think it hearkens back to the universal human quest for meaning in our lives, the concept of true love, and the costs of compromise and secrets. While the setting of this film in Milan, Nice, and London may be well beyond the financial and socio-economic realities of most viewers, the emotions and conflicts can be found in any social stratum. The film is really old fashioned in this sense. In fact, Guadagnino and Swinton co-produced the film together, and purposefully set out to make a film that would "modernize the old-fashioned melodrama," and somehow "rejuvenate the filmmaking style made famous in the 1940s and 1950s by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock ('Rebecca') and Douglas Sirk ('Magnificent Obsession')." There were only a few moments where their efforts took me out of the moment of the story. For most of the film, the John Adams score was amazing in lending the proper tone. But, at other times it was a bit heavy-handed, such as the whole chase scene where Swinton's character is following her soon-to-be lover through the streets of Nice. Similarly, the camera work was almost always beautiful and elegant, but when it wasn't, it was hugely distracting. At one point, the two lovers are driving into the countryside, and oddly the POV is from the actual front bumper of the car, not the occupants.
It's interesting, story wise, that instead of the punitive cause and effect that is often the case in films where women follow their passions in lieu of duty, this piece deftly moves beyond that rut. When tragedy comes after Swinton's character has found love outside of the stifling confines of her societal and familial ranks, she actually uses the pain of the loss of her son to launch her own freedom. Likewise, when she discovers her daughter's secret love of a woman in lieu of the chosen young man she'd been with, she seems giddy at the thought that some spirit of individuality and passion that she instilled in her child has flourished.
Much has been made of the food porn nature of the cuisine, and of the beyond beautiful wardrobe. Once again, Swinton and Guadagnino were deliberate in their choices in making these elements an integral part of the storytelling. They brought in Carlo Cracco, the Milanese chef as an advisor to the director so that the food became "a tool to express the utter giving that a lover can display to the other without words." The fashion was designed by Fendi and Jil Sander specifically for the film, and the red dress Swinton wears in the scene when her character falls in love is classic costume design success at it's best.
Much has also been made of the explicit sex scenes in the film. Different than most American films, though, is the fact that it never feels gratuitous. It is spot-on, and right in the moment, utilizing the characters' passion for one another, the nature surrounding them, and the music that fits perfectly. It is a reminder of how un-real so many Hollywood "love scenes" are written and shot. It is also a reminder of how the American "male gaze" has formed the norm for the depiction of sex in film.
A fun aside that, for me, ties together all of this ode to classic film, fashion, and la dolce vita was the addition of 70s fashion model/icon Marisa Berenson as the matriarch of the family. Every time her character was onscreen, I was struck by the fact that her fabulosity seemed to allude to her character having lived in a previous life the real life of the actress playing her. I've included a few shots from her from her heyday: