Melodrama: I had completely forgotten about it. Several years ago, Todd Haynes of I’m Not There fame wrote and directed Far From Heaven, a sumptuous visual feast starring Julianne Moore that very deliberately tasted of arsenic. It was a tribute to the time of Douglas Sirk, Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, intense colour and extreme emotion.
I Am Love is an Italian return to the melodramatic form, but this fact is not so immediately pronounced as Far From Heaven. It differs in several key areas. When I started taking issue with the direction of the narrative, I recalled the conventions of melodrama and suddenly it all slotted into place, culminating in one of the most perfectly realised finales I have ever seen.
A lot of the time it’s easier to regurgitate a film’s promo synopsis than to write out my own presentation of pertinent points. This is one of those cases:
I AM LOVE tells the story of the wealthy Recchi family, whose lives are undergoing sweeping changes. Eduardo Sr., the family patriarch, has decided to name a successor to the reigns of his massive industrial company, surprising everyone by splitting power between his son Tancredi, and grandson Edo. But Edo dreams of opening a restaurant with his friend Antonio, a handsome and talented chef. At the heart of the family is Tancredi’s wife Emma (Tilda Swinton), a Russian immigrant who has adopted the culture of Milan. An adoring and attentive mother, her existence is shocked to the core when [REDACTED].
What begins as a drama of family politics set in an incredibly bourgeoisie mansion where every family member both hates and loves one another finds, about forty minutes in, its true muse: Tilda Swinton. It was nice up to that point, but Swinton “unlocks” the movie. It is true that a lot of this boils down to style more than anything else, but style is an undeniably important element of a film. Suddenly the camera becomes obsessed with beauty: hers, that of her empty, passionless house, that of Milan, that of Italy’s countryside and even the radiance of prawns. Swinton provides the gravity to balance the carefully presented spectacle.
The sex scenes in I Am Love are an oddity among a lot of modern filmmaking: while the camera worships Swinton above all else, it is rare in that her lover is acknowledged rather than begrudged. You certainly see more male skin than you would in a more conventional film than this. The sex is not copious but it definitely unlocks a sensuality that Swinton refuses to show elsewhere. She has warmth, but she is slightly distanced from events: a business she couldn’t care less about, a marriage that seems to mean nothing to her. The only things that matter are her love for her children and perhaps another kind of love entirely.
All of this washes away and we realise that the film’s ultimate strength lies elsewhere: with Swinton remaining expressionless even as the world crumbles around her. She is a rock, expending a great deal of effort into being paralyzed beyond emotion by circumstance.
In the amazing finale, minor characters suddenly reveal hidden depths. The performances of the actors playing Swinton’s daughter and maid are masterful in their subtlety; almost to the point that you could believe the film had been about three women all along, rather than one alone.
There is a clear level of bias in the critical establishment towards Tilda Swinton. If she mystifies you, then maybe I Am Love won’t work in your favour. However, she offers a truly command performance and it is difficult not to be overwhelmed by the gravity that she brings to the role and its many demands – not least of which involved her learning Italian from scratch and speaking it with a Russian accent. I will freely admit my bias, but she is a very difficult woman not to love, and has caught my eye since I saw Broken Flowers many years ago.
The one shortcoming towards the end of I Am Love, in my eye, was redeemed by my recollection of the conventions of melodrama. Something that would annoy me in any other film (and perhaps unfairly, at that) became acceptable within this context. Just as Tilda took control of the film 40 minutes in, suddenly in the closing moments she is joined by birds, architecture and intense, crashing music. The “bad” story element was a catalyst for the achievement of the apex of the genre.
I Am Love is a stunning and beautiful piece of work, even outside the confines of the outmoded story model that it has chosen to reside in. It demands to be seen: through I Am Love, Swinton and director Luca Guadgnino have committed the perfect crime.
I Am Love is showing at Palace and Dendy cinemas throughout Australia as of June 24, 2010.