I Am Love is the best contemporary film I have seen in a long, long time. I felt so many emotions, all so strongly, throughout the entire film, and emerged from the cinema stunned. An avid viewer of films and television, I have not seen nor wanted to see anything else for days, wanting to keep the impact of this wonderful cinema as strong as possible.
The second time I went to see this, I saw it with another person. After the credits she immediately said, ‘I knew what was going to happen.” I really dislike when people say this as their initial and/or major comment on a film as it suggests a stunted appreciation of cinema that forgets about the cinema factor. I have a friend who recently said this about Animal Kingdom (David Michod, 2010), and while ‘good for her’, I feel like such a perception of film does not allow for full appreciation of its form. Knowing that ‘something bad’ is going to happen is not the same as entirely ruinous predictability.
Beautiful in both worlds
But I digress. I Am Love is of course amazing because of the incredible and intelligent performance by Tilda Swinton. But it is also amazing because of the brilliant direction by Luca Guadagnino, cinematography by Yorick Le Saux, and score by John Adams. As is the case with a lot of films etc. these days, it is not the story that is important–it is easy to think that, for example, one of three things may happen, and then believe that you knew the ending all along–what is important is the form the story takes, and how it gets to the end. I Am Love is a melodrama, through and through, featuring an enviously rich and beautiful (and extensive) family at an incredibly dramatic period in their lives. Guadagnino is comparable to the best of Douglas Sirk, his art is of a calibre as great as Written on the Wind (1956), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Imitation of Life (1959). Sweeping sets, overwhelming scores and dramatic editing are all components of grand melodrama. Sirk’s earlier film, for example, opens with a series of long shots of the Hadley town, and the Hadley mansion, and this introduction is mirrored in I Am Love. In Written on the Wind, nature’s storm occurs at the film’s violent climax. The sky has cleared and the sun is out by the time Marylee Hadley redeems herself, and saves Mitch Wayne, in court. In I Am Love nature’s beauty is exemplified at the film’s sexual climax. The world of the Recchi family is one of excessive wealth and heightened reality, so an indulgence in a heightened natural scenery and senses. Of course, Sirk’s melodramas, as with many earlier films, are characterised by subtext and the exploitation of offscreen space, whereas Guadagnino can be explicit on screen. But he treats this fortune with grace.
The staircase in I Am Love, like the one in Written on the Wind, is at the centre of many events in the film, and its changing flow reflects the emotional rhythm of the characters, and the spectator. And, typical of the melodrama, sex threatens – Emma (Tilda Swinton) becomes involved in an affair that threatens the stale normativity of her marriage, but allows her so much more expression and freedom (a la All That Heaven Allows). And what really becomes the true signifier of her freedom is the gentle shot that appears during the film’s credits. For almost the whole two hours, John Adams’ score created a spectacular soundtrack, enveloping the entire cineworld, and climaxing in a sequence that would take anyone’s breath away. Adam’s The Chairman Dances, and other pieces, creates a perfect sonic environment for the melodramatic whirlwind that Guadagnino designs. The film’s final shot is stunning because of its restraint–a stark contrast with the rest of the film. Even the natural beauty of Antonio’s other is saturated in excess. For the final moment, the last suggestion of Emma’s escape into reality, Guadagnino withdraws all grandiosity, and we are shown Emma and Antonio, out of focus, resting in the understated modesty of a cave. Stunning in its flair and also in its simple moments, I Am Love is truly one of the contemporary greats.
And while an amazing film in its own right, I am of course much in love with Tilda Swinton, and she is the reason I was o desperate to see this film. “Wow, she speaks Italian? She can do anything!” I thought. Later I discovered that she learnt Italian specifically for the part (with eleven years to do so, why not?). Which is also amazing. She is, as she tells Katie Couric, “missing the rulebook that says you have to feel limited.” And this is why she is one of the greatest actors of the present time, because – along with Meryl Streep and Dame Judi Dench, of course, but also Cate Blanchett – she has the chameleon effect, and is not afraid to transform into any role. At another occasion, Tilda has claimed to be interested in the concept of “limitlessness” – being anything – and this is why she can appear in a children’s favourite Disney franchise, win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and also appear in a wordless, black-and-white Hungarian film that interests only a very small number of people. It is absolutely no wonder she has been so successful, commercially as well as personally, with such a view. She rejects labels – “The arthouse…how extracurricular” – so is able to fully commit to, and succeed at, anything. Like Emma Recchi, she finds happiness most natural when it is not bound by expectations.