Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Love: I Am Love

I have a small obsession with Tilda Swinton.  This statement requires no further explanation as I do believe her work does all the arguing and justifying necessary on its own.  The only thing I could possibly add is to correct my initial statement and admit that my obsession with Tilda Swinton might actually be slightly larger than small.  I love Tilda Swinton the way your mom loves Meryl Streep and sometimes think she's more artwork than human.  Because of this fascination, I have high expectations of Tilda Swinton.  I had eagerly awaited the release of Italian director Luca Guadagnino's art house epic I Am Love.  So long and so eagerly that my preconceived notions of what the film should be were reaching up up and further still.  What it needed to be, first and foremost was beautiful.  After that, it needed to (and please don't start singing that song from Nine) be Italian.  By Italian I mean Italian in the most classically cinematic sense of the word.  I wanted a bright and technicolor high-def edition of some sort of Fellini, Antonioni, neorealist slow burn with all the high fashion pageantry, luxe romance of images and scenery entailed therein.  You know, one of those films you can fall in love with based on the aesthetic progression from frame to frame while excusing slips of plot or loose dialogue.  Guess what?  I Am Love is that movie.  It just took me a little while to realize it.  
I Am Love concerns itself with the small melodramas of the aristocratic Recchi family.  The Recchis lord over a textile empire from their magazine spread of a manor.  They pat their patriarchs on the back and toast to being ornamental branches of the genetic tree.  Emma (Tilda Swinton) is our point of entry into their world.  She's an immigrant, the Russian-born wife of Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), one half of the recently appointed new company management.  The other half, in a surprise naming, is her son Edo (Flavio Parenti).  The film opens to a dinner party concerning this announcement, and lingers there in a series of long shots that introduces us to the family in its entirety, and to their lavish lifestyle.  I'm not going to lie to you, while in retrospect the scene serves its purpose, the opening party feels more like a test of endurance than an opening to the intrigue ahead.  You have to want to be there and have to be willing to start mentally drawing comparisons to Visconti and Resnais in order to believe in the eventual pay-off.  Of course, these comparisons are available and accessible.  If you can do these things, find the traces of The Leopard or some such tale, you're exactly the target demographic for I Am Love, and as the film slowly begins to unravel its initial deliberate nature, you will slip deeper and deeper into a satisfied coma of old school cinema literate gluttony.

After the initial passing of those awkward family moments (much like a subdued variation on that never ending rehearsal dinner in Rachel Getting Married), I Am Love is a sumptuous feast of color, photography, setting, emotion and well-constructed tension.  The dialogue is frequently minimal, but what is unsaid is conveyed through body language and camerawork.  Swinton is, as per usual, the film's highly magnetic core.  This world revolves around her and, as she slowly picks at the layers of her own unhappiness, the film itself becomes more and more heated and unpredictable.  Her performance here is heavily subdued, all the moreso after her outlandish, bawdy turn in last year's Julia.  One of Swinton's greatest strengths as an actress is her chameleon-like ability to become a character so thoroughly that the essence on screen is entirely different from role to role.  Swinton knows Emma and Emma is not the Swinton that you've seen before, even stripped nude, she projects this character without faltering or retreating into pantomime.  Emma surprises herself as she enters into a passionate, almost ecstatic affair with her son's friend the chef (Edoardo Gabbriellini), and it shows. Guadagnino shoots the oh-so-art house tastefully down and dirty lovemaking with as much enthusiasm as he devotes to the film's culinary focus.  Backed by John Adams's driving score, I Am Love's devotion to such rich subject matter (love, sex, food, family, etc) becomes magnified into pure opulence.
At the most superficial level my emotional range during this film was one of wanting. I wanted to go to that place, to eat that food, to wear that dress...but it went much deeper than that. Its volatile cinematic trajectory moved from the impossibly slow to the wholly engrossing, in which I just wanted to slow it down, drag it out, make it stop before it reached the end credits. I can honestly tell you, this film would get a 5 heart rating based on its last quarter alone. The final half hour is one of the most affecting, beautiful, perfectly constructed extended sequences I've seen in a long time. There's a turning point that surprised me (and no, I won't tell you what it is), and from there I sat completely stunned and slack jawed in the best way imagineable. It was awe I felt up through the last 5 seconds as I began to move steadily from liking the film quite a bit to loving the film and being invested in its outcome wholeheartedly. I don't throw this around very often so let me reiterate for emphasis: the final chapter of this film is perfect. There are no complaints. It could not have ended better. I wanted to tap on the glass of the projection booth and ask them to rewind so we could see that happen again.  Perfect, at once high art and desperately human, it's like Antonioni detoured from L'Avventura and time traveled back to Last Year at Marienbad

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