Tuesday, July 6, 2010
A Movie a Day, day 51: I Am Love
A mediocre melodrama with a great performance at its center, I Am Love is often torpid, sometimes laughable, and occasionally deeply moving.
Writer/director Luca Guadagnino seems to be going for a Visconti-style epic with historical resonance. The Milano manufacturing family that’s choking the life out of our heroine, Emma (Tilda Swinton), exemplifies the ambitious bourgeoisie who took economic control of Italy from the bluebloods in the late 19th and early 20th century. Emma’s husband is even named Tancredi, presumably after the up-and-coming young officer in Visconti’s The Leopard, which chronicled the end of the road for an old-school southern Italian aristocrat. The director also tries for Visconti-style political context, inserting a subplot about the family-owned company being streamlined and sold, becoming part of the global economy and passing references to how the Recchis acquired their wealth (through exploiting workers, fueling the Axis war machine during WWII, and making shady deals with local, possibly Mafioso, leaders). But resurrecting the old master’s ghost only makes I Am Love feel that much more hackneyed.
It feels long at just over two hours, dragging in several places. I could have done with a lot fewer shots of people opening and closing drawers, serving sumptuous meals, or milling about in formal clothes for parties in the Recchis’ mansion. The camera work is lackluster too, calling attention to itself mostly in negative ways, like when it pans awkwardly from one person to the other in a conversation or focuses on suffocatingly close shots of plants or parts of people’s faces and bodies for no apparent reason. Even the gorgeous Italian countryside mostly looks merely pretty here, like something from a Hallmark greeting card. And I didn’t even try to count all the visual clichés, though I did make notes about statues “crying” in the rain, a bird symbolically trapped in a church where Emma tries to find sanctuary, her lover’s pickup truck and sweet-looking yellow Lab, and their Lady Chatterly-like sex in the grass, a muzzy mix of too-close shots of flesh and close-ups of the reproductive organs of plants. As for Emma’s husband, all you need to know about their incompatibility is that he switches channels when she’s watching the scene in Philadelphia where Tom Hanks listens to opera, right? And just in case you missed the point, Guadagnino shows us Hanks’ ecstastic little dance and Denzel Washington’s empathetic gaze once again.
But then there is Swinton, who undergoes an astonishing transformation over the course of the film. Emma starts out a quivering beastie in a gilded cage. With her thin body clothed mainly in monotone sheaths, her pale skin making her look almost flayed, and her hair encased in one of those buns that always spells repression in movies like this, Swinton even looks unhealthy at first, but it’s her acting that tells the tale. Her tentative movements, uneasy smiles, and the way she’s always scanning everyone else’s faces all telegraph how thoroughly her sense of self has been gutted by this patriarchal family, with its unshakeable confidence in its own primacy and its insistence on everyone’s proper place.
Then she falls for Antonio (a cute but innocuous Edoardo Gabbriellini), the delicately earthy chef her son Edoardo brings into the house, and Swinton lets her inner lioness out. That doesn’t happen all at once, of course, and Swinton details the birth pangs of Emma’s liberated self as beautifully as she portrays the newly empowered woman who emerges at the end.
It all starts when she savors some glistening prawns prepared for her family by Antonio. Overcoming even one of those inappropriate close-up (the camera suddenly focuses on one side of her face as she masticates), Swinton shows us just what that meal means to Emma. Her eyes widen in surprise, then flutter shut as she savors each bite, chewing with increasing sensualism. When Antonio comes to her table to see how they liked the food, she’s too embarrassed to look at him, as if they’ve already shared a forbidden intimacy.
If you love great acting, you’ll want to see this performance.