Rarely do the opening moments of a movie tell us so much in regards to what a picture is about. After a brief glimpse of a clandestine make-out session between two of I Am Love's younger characters, writer/director Luca Guadagnino cuts to a birthday party for an old man, Edoardo Recchi Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti), the patriarch of the Recchi Family. The grandfather is opening a present from his granddaughter, Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher), and her mother, Emma (Tilda Swinton), seizes the ribbon off the gift and wraps it around her hand. It is a small gesture that reveals what kind of character she is: she maintains the family order, everything must be contained and controlled. Likewise, the old man's reaction to the gift shows us there is a conflict between young and old, between change and tradition. The girl gives her grandfather a photograph she took, but he expected the budding artist to give him a drawing. He doesn't like that she has shifted disciplines to something more modern, something he calls "novelty."
I Am Love is a grown-up melodrama. It is about many things, but most of them boil down to divisions: divisions between generations, divisions between classes, and most important, the division between our desires and our actual lives. The movie examines lives that have become stagnant and explores how some blossom by embracing change, and others flounder because they hold too tight to things they should let go of.
Grandfather Edoardo passes on shortly after his birthday, leaving the family textile business jointly to his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and grandson Edoardo Jr. (Flavio Parenti). Surprisingly, it's the older man who wants to sell off the company and go global, it's the younger who wants to stay true to his grandfather's vision. He used to visit the factory with Edoardo Sr. and eat in the cafeteria with him. There's a little bit of nostalgia at play, but also maybe a little of wanting to make good on his perceived mistakes. The day of Grandpa's birthday, Edo lost a race, something the dying man claimed disrupted a string of family victories.
Ironically, the guy who beat Edo in that race has now become his friend. Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) is a young chef who is also following in his father's footsteps--at least to a degree. He works at his father's restaurant in Milan (where the Tancredies also live), but he wants to open up his own place on a hillside in Nice. He sees food as an emotional art, the way to share what is inside him and nourish his fellow man; his father is more practical. Edo agrees to work between the two and convince Antonio's dad to let him go out on his own.
I've kind of worked the long way around here to get to the crux of the story. The true center of I Am Love is Emma, a Russian immigrant who has surrendered her cultural identity to be a wife and mother in Italy. With her children growing up--Edo is engaged to a girl named Eva (Diane Fleri); Elisabetta is in school in England, where she is discovering she likes girls herself--Emma's purpose is changing. When she first meets Antonio on the night of the race, when he comes to present his opponent with a treat he has baked, his kindness stirs something in her. When next she sees him, he shows her a cooking technique. On their third encounter, Emma is dining with Eva and her mother-in-law (Marisa Berenson) at Antonio's father's restaurant. He makes her a special prawn dish.
The scene where Emma tries the prawns is one of the most beautiful I've seen in terms of one person's relationship to food and the romantic connection it creates between her and the chef. As Emma takes her first bite, the sounds in the room fade away, leaving only her chewing and the clatter of her utensils. The light focuses on her as the rest of the world is dimmed in shadow. Guadagnino moves in close, cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (Swimming Pool) zooming in on the dish, then on Emma's mouth, cutting back and forth, relishing the sensation of the experience. Yes, it's a little like the live action version of Anton Ego trying Remy's special meal in Ratatouille, and it's just as effective in this context as it was in that one. Emma is transported.
An affair between Emma and Antonio starts up shortly thereafter. She runs into him in Nice--presumably by accident, but then, we can't be sure--and he takes her to show her the restaurant. One thing leads to another, and something dormant in Emma is unlocked. She begins to loosen up, to feel again, and to consider new things. And, yes, it's terribly bourgeois and dangerously close to Under the Tuscan Sun or Eat Pray Love territory, but I Am Love reaches deep into the spice of life that those other two movies only sniff at. This movie portrays an adult love affair, complete with adult yearnings and also real consequences. It also has an astounding performance from Tilda Swinton, who never goes for the obvious or easy choices. She need not even speak, it's on her face and in her body language, all of her conflicting emotions sparking at once.
Luca Guadagnino creates a sumptuous visual palette for his movie. He explores all the colors of life. His greatest contrast is the drab tones of Antonio's father's place and the blooming gardens of the mountains in Nice. He takes Emma into the flora, and Le Saux once again pushes in close, examining every inch of Emma's body in the same way he examines the flowers, following the movement of the lovemaking just as he follows insects pollinating the blossoms. As I said, I Am Love is a movie about divisions, and as such, it's also one full of disparities and contrasts. There is an upside and downside to everything. Earlier events are recalled in later situations, one movement informs another. Edo remembers his grandfather dining with his workers, for instance, and is amused that the old man once pretended to be amongst the common people, whereas when Emma invites her maid to share dinner with her, the woman refuses, saying she knows her place. To break out of that is dangerous.
Edo continues to be the most strident character throughout I Am Love, the direct opposite of his sister, who wants to experience real love but is afraid her family won't accept it. Emma's newfound romance could give Elisabetta the freedom to be who she is, yet Edo would maintain a grip on things if he could, much in the same way his mother gripped that ribbon at the start. He will eventually discover his mother's infidelity, but it's not the cheating that bothers him, it's the revelation that she shared an intimacy that he thought was solely his by giving Antonio the recipe for his favorite food from when he was a child. In a way, it's like he is discovering that his two lovers are seeing each other behind his back, and they should have never come together without him. (Note, too, how quickly his fiancée is marginalized in all this; Eva is quickly shoved aside once the triangle blows up.) Guadagnino takes the metaphorical dislodging Emma's actions cause and finds a literal application for it. I Am Love is about half Douglas Sirk, half Greek tragedy. As a performer, Flavio Parenti finds the right middle ground between childish and romantically earnest to match both.
Unfortunately, Guadagnino takes it one contrast too far. The dam eventually breaks on all this restrained feeling, but in the penultimate sequence, the director plays against the grain. A confrontation is enacted in near silence, the only soundtrack the ambient noise of the environment. It's a conflict where the simple act of taking back a jacket is an act of violence. The sequence that follows it, however, goes the other way; the emotional climax of I Am Love is cranked to an operatic volume. The music for the movie is a collection of work from acclaimed composer John Adams, and for most of I Am Love, Guadagnino uses it to give the movie the right level of soap opera. For the closing scenes, which also lack any substantial dialogue, all subtlety is abandoned and Adams overdoes it. The histrionics are so exaggerated, it's almost comical. If you thought the Adams music Scorsese used in Shutter Island was too on the nose, you haven't heard anything yet. It's like Guadagnino lost all faith in his audience's ability to make any emotional connection of their own.
I get what Guadagnino is going for, the movie's finale is meant to be a release, the floodgates coming open and everything rushing out. Emma has caused a revolution, and those who want to go with her do so, and those who can't stay blocked in behind their upper-class fortress. The director has taken us all this way, we are prepared for it, he doesn't have to drown us in that flood to make sure we get it. It's a junvenile outburst in an otherwise mature movie.
Still, this one misstep is not enough to dismantle all that has come before. I Am Love is still a smart, winning melodrama. If you like your love stories as finely seasoned and rich as a good meal, you won't be sorry. You might feel engorged when the credits roll, but it's so worth it, you won't care.
There are optional English subtitles, as well as a Closed Captioning option and an additional Spanish subtitle track.
A featurette called "Moments on the Set of I Am Love" runs just under 15 minutes and shows us the actors working on the set, with interview snippets giving some explanation for what we are seeing. The interview material is largely culled from the lengthy "Interviews with Cast and Crew" feature, a healthy collection of conversations that runs about 1 hour and 10 minutes all together. The main cast, the director, and producer Silvia Venturini Fendi, who was also a stylist on the movie, all discuss their impressions of the script and the working experience. Both of these featurettes are in standard definition.
The theatrical trailer for I Am Love is also here, as well as others from Magnolia, including an option to download more through the BD live function.