I Am Love is essential viewing for those of us who are astonished by Tilda Swinton's ability to become someone new in every film. On screen, the actress performs a remarkable fission of the self. It's as if we're watching her shed the skin of her characters, frame by frame, as she frees herself from the prescribed limitations of their boxed-in dilemmas, emerging from the experience entirely changed. In Michael Clayton (2007) and Julia (2008), both narratives exerted enormous moral stresses upon the women Swinton played. The combination of those societal and internal pressures was the driving force behind her subsequent transformations. And yet, even here, in I Am Love, a film set amongst the privileged lives of the haute bourgeoisie, where all of one's wishes seem easily attainable, Swinton shows us a conventional woman's capacity for change, and she does so thrillingly.
I Am Love begins in winter, and captures that season's hushed sense of enclosure. The camera takes in wide shots of a grainy, snowed-in Milan, and holds steady on various buildings and streets as the setting establishes itself, slowly and deliberately. As the opening credits roll to a close, the last still shot alights upon an enormous, modern house, surrounded on all sides by walls high enough to protect a castle. The camera then continues to hover above the street level, and, like a Peeping Tom on a ladder, peers through the curtains, where it finds a small army of servants busying themselves as they prepare for a celebration.
We enter the house and witness their hurried comings and goings through doorways and hidden passages. Then, briefly, as if afraid to linger or stare at her for too long, we glimpse Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton), eyes cast downward, her hands in motion, busy with dinner table chores. This introduction via scenic tableau is only separated by a few edited seconds from Emma's later entrance that evening to her father-in-law's birthday party. And what an entrance it is: she has abandoned her drab blouse and slacks for a fitted purple dress, descending the staircase like royalty from some inaccessible or mythic kingdom. She appears right-sized in this mansion, and content in her role as housewife and mother of three. But is she?
Swinton doesn't play ordinary, so the role of Emma Recchi might, at first, seem like a puzzling choice. Did she long for the role of an introvert after playing the volatile, unstrung and vile Julia? Emma must have felt like a salve to Swinton after the verbal pyrotechnics required of her for Erick Zonca's film. But we're immediately faced with a problem: from Lady Chatterly's Lover (1928) to Unfaithful (2002) with Diane Lane, we've seen this story before. Above and beyond the travel pornography that cinematic Italy offers, can the overly familiar story of a wealthy wife's discontent once again hold our interest?
The director, Luca Guadagnino, answers with a resounding yes by filming every scene with the pleasure of a sensualist. Emma's wardrobe shifts from purple to red to tangerine and lilac. The arrival of summer inspires Guadagnino to create shimmering close-ups like Dutch still lifes, teeming with fruit, flowers and insects, all dazed by the power of the sun. In addition, he gestures toward Michelangelo Antonioni's films by using architectural spaces as vessels to frame outsized human emotions. (That sense of the enclosed house at the beginning of I Am Love also works as a symbol for Emma's emotional life.) But unlike Monica Vitti's character in Antonioni's Red Desert (1964), Swinton's character is mercifully free of neuroses. Emma has found some fulfillment in her domestic and maternal life. That is, until her appetite is awakened by a young chef, who cooks her a dish the stunning color of blood. This combination of food and passion hasn't worked as well since Mostly Martha (2001), whose elegiac tone and deliberate pacing the two movies also share.
I Am Love contains stillness at its center, and entirely relies upon Swinton's haunting ability to fill in the empty spaces of a sparely-written melodrama. Once Emma gives in to desire, the choices she makes feel unexpected and unrehearsed, as if she's racing to keep up with the needs of her newly aroused heart. The first kiss with her lover is shot off center and from a distance, and they're both blurred by a sunset's haze as the scene ends. The lush imagery speaks for itself. It's not often that a languid film evokes such palpable excitement. Guadagnino and his audience can thank Tilda Swinton for this -- in silence, she can convey worlds.
I Am Love opens Friday, June 25, 2010 at Landmark Theatres Embarcadero Cinema.