Like many classic stories of untapped passion, Luca Guadagnino's melodrama I Am Love begins in winter. Citizens slog, head and shoulders down, through the slushy streets of contemporary Milan, while around one of the city's palatial villas, snow falls artfully on gray statues. This opening scene is the first of many of the film's unspoken suggestions that wealth can make miseries, such snow storms or family tensions, more bearable -- at least up to point.
Inside the fine home, servants scurry about under the direction of Signora Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton), the cool, regal lady of the house. There is to be a dinner party -- it is the birthday of the elderly patriarch -- and both the meal and the family are being properly assembled.
The observant will notice that perhaps all is not right among the otherwise well-mannered Recchis. A gift exchange creates awkwardness, though viewers will note the closeness between Emma and her sensitive, artistic daughter, as well as the casual contempt of Emma's mother-in-law (Marisa Berenson).
Grandpa announces he is bequeathing the family textile business jointly to his dull middle-aged son, Tancredi (whom we see treats his wife Emma with detached courtesy) and his flightier grandson, Edo (Flavio Parenti). Edo has already caused ripples by inviting a new girlfriend to dinner. Later, the unexpected arrival of Edo's sporting pal and rising young chef, Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), is the tiny random act that will precipitate the family's cataclysmic breakdown. Antonio drops off a cake, and makes the oh-so-brief acquaintance of Emma.
While Emma has mastered her life as lady of the manor -- she is the sort of sleek, perfectly coiffed woman who runs idle errands in a $3,000 shift complemented by a divinely impractical handbag -- we learn she is an exotic outsider, a Russian, more trophy wife than blood kin. (Tancredi met her while collecting art in Russia.) With her children grown and her husband immersed in business, she is bored and vaguely dissatisfied.
Later during the summer, Emma dines at Antonio's restaurant and is entranced by his prawns. She hires the chef for a dinner party, and giggles in embarrassment when he invites her to help cook. Meanwhile, Edo is employing his charm and business acumen to help his friend open a restaurant in the hills high above San Remo.
When Emma travels to San Remo, seasoned movie-goers won't be surprised that she runs into Antonio, or that he invites her to see his hilltop farm, or that the two tumble into a heated affair. Or that Emma's newly awakened passion will imperil her already fragile family. (It's not just the personal: The Milan-based family business is being subsumed by the new global economy. It's no coincidence that the surviving elder Recchi resembles a well-dressed bird-like dinosaur.)
I am Love isn't a talky, lots-of-plot kind of melodrama. It will surely try the patience of those who want lots of action rather than lingering shots of dinner plates, or who need to have everything explained by the characters. This is a low-simmer domestic crisis where the major conflicts are merely hinted at or handled very delicately by these refined people.
The focus is almost exclusively on Emma. While we learn some revealing information about her children, they remain rather peripheral. And we glean almost nothing of Antonio's inner life. We note that he is handy in the proverbial kitchen and bedroom (or in this case, a sun-drenched front yard replete with buzzing bees) -- and there is just the slightest hint that his relationship with Edo may be more erotically charged than a simple friendship.
The film works -- seduces , if you will -- if the viewer surrenders to its sumptuous style, even as the work occasionally toes the line of hothouse pretension. Guadagnino clearly has studied directors Visconti and Sirk, who also made similar lush, mannered domestic dramas of disintegrating families, riven from within and without.
Guadagnino's stylized direction piles on enough technique -- fluid cameras, just-so lighting, rapturous close-ups -- to give I Am Love a dreamlike quality that helps smooth out the experience. But his primary asset is Swinton. Operating with much restraint, she nonetheless delivers a riveting portrait of a woman utterly consumed with re-ignited emotions. Swinton carries scenes that in the hands of a less capable and commanding actress would likely have had viewers howling. (She has one rapturous scene with the aforementioned prawns; another, on the toilet.)
Nearly two hours of quiet moments build to an inevitable jolt, with a plot twist that feels perfunctory and hoary. Yet the scenes that follow are some of the film's most charged and thrilling, elegantly filmed and thrumming with a wordless operatic intensity. And for the final scene, be sure to sit through the credits. In Italian, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., July 2. Manor