I Am Love opens with a flurry, as the expertly-trained uniformed staff of an haute-bourgeoisie Milanese manufacturing family prepare for the Christmas season birthday of the leonine patriarch. The family members arrive, each magnificently attired (this being Milan, after all), and the soup (soup playing a crucial part in this film) is ladled from the giant silver tureen.
The great patriarch is ill and soon to die, and in a moment straight out of Greek mythology or Shakespeare, announces to the assembled his choice of successor to the family’s fortune-making textile plants: his middle-aged son Tancredi, who already wears the polished respectability of a titan of industry. It is in Tancredi’s sophisticated, museum-like mansion that the party is taking place and his elegant wife Emma (played by the stunning and absolutely amazing Tilda Swinton, who also produced the film) who is responsible for the clockwork orchestrations of the household.
But there is more, a surprise. For there will be not one but two successors, not only Tancredi but also one of Tancredi and Emma’s three children, the delicate and highly emotional Edoardo.
The stage has been set, brilliantly. Let the drama begin.
That I Am Love is a cultural work of the highest, dazzling degree of refinement and accomplishment goes without saying. Just gaze at the poster. Every still is no less beautiful and every scene with Tilda Swinton (that is to say, nearly the entire movie) is breathtaking. Just half an hour into the thrillingly gorgeous scenery, language, food, furnishings and people, and you, too, will want—as Tilda Swinton’s character, the Russian-born Emma, has done—to move to Milan, never again to return to your native land.
If only the review could end right here. It feels positively philistine to suggest that there may be any flaws whatsoever with this production, and if you want to stop reading and proceed directly to the theater, buon giorno and enjoy. For the rest, let us just say that one is left with lingering… questions. So many questions.
But first, let us reiterate that the first half hour or forty-five minutes are positively divine, an absolutely flawless high-wire act of scene and mood. One wonders how it can possibly be sustained.
And sadly, it isn’t.
But oh, what a let-down.
The wonder is how something that promises Visconti’s The Leopard or Bertolucci’s The Conformist can devolve, so quickly, into Under the Tuscan Sun crossed with The Scarlet Letter. Indeed, the first third of the movie and the latter two-thirds seem to exist in parallel worlds. Plotlines that seem so carefully set up at the beginning are completely dropped, while what comes after is completely surprising and unbelievable.
Much has been made of John Adams’ contribution, and surely it is an exciting event to have a composer of his caliber grace the world of cinema with his music, which is gorgeous, as ever, on its own (and available on the Nonesuch label). But as a soundtrack, it is both obtrusive and yet inadequate, seeming as it often does to be ratcheted up for the sole purpose of distracting from the larger plot holes and providing motivation where none exists.
What happens to the great power struggle over the family’s fortune? To what end are we shown those brief flashbacks to Emma’s Russian childhood? How does the masterful Emma, whose husband, though stodgy, obviously cares for her dearly, suddenly find herself stalking her son’s best friend when there was never a second’s flicker of frisson between them or suggestion of her discontent? And what is the deal with the sexual ambiguity and overlapping identities?
Both Emma and her daughter Betta cut their thick falls of butterscotch hair as each comes into her own, sexually. But why would Betta’s sexual maturation spark in her mother such inexplicable behavior? What is truly at the heart of the fraught triangle between Emma, Edoardo and his good friend Antonio? Why does Ida never give Emma the note Edoardo asked her to pass on and what in the world did the note say? Why has he been increasingly upset and unhappy?
All this and more, we’ll never know, and with the music thrumming in our ears, we’ll barely have time to wonder.
The insistent agitation of the soundtrack is meant to suggest hidden depths of feeling and conflict but in a film of exquisite restraint in cinematography, acting and (for the most part) editing, this excessive pour of beautiful but overbearing music signals a crisis of confidence and ceding of artistic authority.
But the biggest disappointment, as pointed out by my friend Jenny McPhee is her gloriously titled (though intermittently updated) blog FilmFatale, is that the second half of I Am Love, for all its sumptuous visuals, may just as well be another cautionary made-for-TV movie of the week. For it presents yet again that age-old false choice for women: between duty or selfhood and humiliation, between repression or ecstasy and tragedy. In a movie that promised so much, this is the biggest betrayal.