I Am Love – 2009 – dir. Luca Guadagnio
I Am Love is the story of Emma (Tilda Swinton), a middle-aged wife and mother in a family of wealthy Italian industrialists. As she falls into an affair with a young chef and deals with the consequences of pursuing her passion, the film manages to be affecting and intense, but through strategies that are utterly distinct from anything in a typical Hollywood film.
The first sequence, a formal dinner at the family’s sumptuous mansion in Milan, establishes that little traditional exposition will be used. For one, characters don’t say much, relatively; “The idea that people are articulate, I think, is a real mistake,” observes Swinton early on in the DVD commentary. One of the maxims of scriptwriting is that if you can show something, the characters won’t need to bother to articulate it, but in I Am Love, there isn’t much of either. Instead, the camera spends time lingering on movement or simply taking in the settings — the mansion, a verdant countryside, an imposing cathedral. At least in the case of the house, the exceptional craftsmanship actually does some of the characterization of these textile manufacturers: “There is something about practicality in this family. It is about making things that can be seen in reality,” as director Luca Guadagnino comments.
Once the chill atmosphere of the family is established, however, the focus centers on Emma and her burgeoning desire to break free. Swinton calls it a “prison film,” and it’s easy to see how the family and the home are stifling. But even when she goes out to the countryside for an assignation with her lover, her surroundings still dominate cinematically. Close-ups of plant life are intercut with their bodies making love alfresco, in shots that pick out a piece of their anatomies, making them as unfamiliar as the flora. Sex is made to seem more like the biological process of intercourse, not so much an emotional catharsis. “Nature is a very important character in the film,” says Swinton, and this is not nearly as hollow an assertion as it would be if she were talking about the average Hollywood film set in the outdoors.
This depersonalizing scene aside, the film makes Emma’s experience extraordinarily vivid despite the lack of traditional character development. Extreme close-ups are mostly reserved for her and her daughter, whose own new-found homosexuality spurs Emma on. She is given some of the most revealing dialogue of what little is provided, as we learn briefly of the life she left behind in Russia to marry the Italian magnate. This minimal revelation seems like a major step forward, setting it off sharply from a borderline-incomprehensible subplot about the sale of the family’s textile company.
But the strongest force in the film is the array of the cinematographic and editing devices used, which are so diverse that the viewer is always kept slightly off balance. While most of the editing is slow by Hollywood standards, a few scenes are, inexplicably, cut more quickly than is comfortable, and the few times that a dissolve is used, they are exceptionally quick and transition between scenes in what would ordinarily be a straight cut in Hollywood.
Likewise, the cinematography changes frequently enough to develop a sense of chaos. There are so few handheld shots that when one finally appears, it’s a bit jarring. Later, a single long tracking shot takes Emma through the house during a party — the kind of stunt filming that draws attention to itself (for better or worse) — but it’s the only one of its kind. Earlier, a critical moment of budding love is out-of-focus and almost illegible, and a walk through the city takes in the buildings with quick moving shots that are disorienting and contrast sharply with the film’s slow pace.
Any one of these alone would be a subtle point of interest, but all together the diversity and frequency of these choices lend the narrative an intense feeling of upheaval. Either by design or coincidence, this strategy fits almost perfectly with the story of a woman upending her life for love and discovering herself in the process, and so it distinguishes Emma’s perspective even more as the central point of view. Moreover, the lack of regular exposition often has the effect of making what we actually see harder to understand, almost as though we are like Emma, confronting emotions we don’t even have a name for.
In the end, these all add up to a deep tension within the film. Emma is only a sketch of a character, but we identify with her, even as she feels almost as distant and inscrutable as the rest of the Recchi family. It is that tension that makes I Am Love feel unique, and “unique” is almost always a superlative in art.