Sometimes, pretentiousness is not a bad thing. If you disagree, then I Am Love may not be the film for you. But sometimes you just have to accept a film's crazy ambitions and insistent artistry and hang on as it shoots for the heavens. Luca Guadagnino's film takes wild flight on several occasions — as well it should, since one of its screenwriters worked on Dario Argento's beyond-certifiable Mother of Tears — and it isn't afraid to skirt catastrophe, as when two lovers lose themselves in a shifting-focus orgy of nature. Is this operatic? Yes. Ridiculous? Sort of.
But it's still remarkably effective in laying open the id of Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton) — born Russian, married Italian, and now adrift in a sensual whirlpool of amazing outfits, orgasmic cuisine and sexual uncertainty, thanks to her son's business partner/unrequited love object, the chef Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). By the time Guadagnino is done with you, you'll want to have a dinner party and an erotic awakening, possibly at the same time. Imagine countless green glasses, individually lit, and finely wrought flesh as far as the eye can see. Or better yet, a shrimp dish that makes your eyes (like Swinton's) roll back in your head and your legs uncross. Mad passionate abandon is the main course here, served flambé with a John Adams score and small plates of emotional wreckage and tiny betrayals every reel or so.
Alone among actors, Swinton can incarnate an idea or a concept: she has an instinctive understanding of how to take an abstraction from the page or a discussion and somehow give it breath and voice. Her time with Derek Jarman continues to benefit the cinematic world, and her Emma is a complex sketch of a woman overtaken by hunger (erotic, emotional, epicurean) that verges on hysteria. What else can she do but give in to such a craving?
It's not a responsible lesson, perhaps, but it's always riveting. In the way that the Recchi home is deliriously hypersymbolic, all glass walls and Donkey Kong-style staircases, so is this film ornately styled in the vein of classic Italian cinema of the '60s and '70s, with business as warfare, family names as the most valuable of commodities, and secret lovers for everyone. Think Visconti's The Leopard or Bertolucci's The Conformist — that's the (over)cooking class to which Guadagnino aspires. Glorious in its excesses and successes alike, I Am Love is a feast of everything that makes movies awesome.
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