As visually sumptuous as Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and just as methodically paced, Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love is easily one of the most lavishly old-fashioned features to be released in the new decade. Yet, this charge of aesthetic excess runneth over works both to the film's sublime benefit and its patience testing downfall as well.
To this end, it's only fitting that this sweeping Italian drama marks Pulitzer Prize winning opera composer John Adams's feature film scoring debut as the thinly plotted, melodramatic work feels all too familiar. In fact, Guadagnino's influences seem to be endlessly far reaching as to include Shakespearean tragedies, Italian operas, Malle's Damage, Sirk's 1950s tales of domestic woe, Wharton's Ethan Frome, Visconti's The Leopard and the bleak Russian novels that are cited in the screenplay for their unfair treatment of female characters.
And although you probably couldn't immediately tell just by looking at her in the opening sequences of Guadagnino's film released by Magnolia Pictures, the character of Emma embodied by Oscar winning actress Tilda Swinton is a woman who's also imprisoned by her circumstance as another merely decorative and exotic (she's Russian just like the tragic women of Tolstoy) fixture in her Italian husband Tancredi's sprawling estate in Milan.
Yet there's something innately melancholic behind those splendid eyes that foreshadows the emotional rollercoaster upon which Emma will embark -- having been plucked from obscurity in Russia to become the wife of a textile factory owner's son who even went so far as to rename his treasure in an attempt to transform the woman from Russian to Italian for breeding sake as she raised his three now grown, intelligent and independent minded children.
Proving that the movie's excesses move beyond the gratuitous shots of exquisitely prepared cuisine, artwork, furniture and more, the very fact that the film presents us with three children but for all intensive purposes only gives two of them an actual – if minimal – plot is just one example of how I Am Love could've benefited right from the script stage in tightening up the work to try to draw us in emotionally with characters.
For aside from Emma and the best friend turned secret lover Antonio (Edouardo Gabbriellini) of Emma and Tancredi's favorite son Edouardo (Flavio Parenti), we seldom feel any authentic connection with the individuals onscreen, which again serves as a double edged sword for Guadagnino in that we're bored by everyone except the two who are ferociously and unabashedly the very definition of love.
Moreover, our leading lady seems to feel precisely the same way as, awakened by the unbridled freedom she feels when in the arms of chef Antonio whose food seems to have an almost Like Water for Chocolate magic realism effect of rapturous erotic pleasure in Emma, soon the mostly taken for granted mother with nothing but parties to plan while her children embark on lives and loves of their own develops a taste for more.
While pursuing her passion and getting back in touch with her own identity as a Russian by opening up about a past she's been urged by her spouse to hide, Emma discovers there's an entire world of feelings outside the walls of the luxurious mansion that she's longing to break free to experience.
Set against the backdrop of jealousy, secrecy and an unspoken push and pull between the attitudes and priorities of one generation to the next, I Am Love purports to have a lot to say and with its 120 minute running time and more than enough reels of film in which to do so. However, after its extraordinary set-up and introduction of enough characters to fill an ocean liner, suddenly everything is pushed by the wayside in favor of camera lust, beautiful examples of la dolce vita, and the type of romantic extramarital affair that we've read, seen, and heard in books, operas and films for centuries.
Ultimately and with the exception of an especially cruel twist of fate that can be read in some circles as jarringly anti-feminist in its ritualized punishment device inserted in the final act, Guadagnino's Love feels like much ado about... things from the shortened haircut of Emma and her daughter to a book accidentally shoplifted in the heat of passion to scores of food that fill the screen.
Boasting an at times slightly intrusive yet still dynamically old-fashioned, near Hitchcock worthy score by Adams that's sure to send many to pick up the soundtrack, Guadagnino's work also displays yet another extremely impressive turn by Swinton who speaks two different languages during the film.
And for those who are determined to track it down, I Am Love is especially worth seeking out on the big screen mostly due to its simply dazzling cinematography by Yorick Le Saux. Nonetheless this being said, the grossly over-praised work which is paced slower than a golf game and offers nothing particularly new or original to astute foreign film savvy viewers is best appreciated for its museum like quality and emphasis on moving images over anything resembling a substantive plot.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.