I am Love (2010), directed by Luca Guadagnino
By the end of Luca Guadagnino’s opulent revival of the family melodrama, no member of its fabulously wealthy Milanese family has revealed themselves quite as completely as the deceptively austere palazzo in which they live. It is an unusual house; enormous, urban and clad in a 1930s rationalist facade which conceals a feast of opulent but simply ornamented surfaces. The difference between its interior and exterior tells us most of what we need to know about its inhabitants. To an even greater extent than the Sirk and Visconti melodramas which it evokes, the story of I am Love depends on the details of inanimate objects — clothes, cities, buildings and, above all, food.
As the doors of the Recchi family palazzo open, we are conscious, as when Welles invites us into the Amberson mansion, of entering a private and nearly fantastical realm. The film opens with the birthday party of the elderly family patriarch. As the party unfolds, Guadagnino subtly insinuates the merest hints of the tensions which will threaten to destroy the family, an entity as indestructible as a polished marble floor. The Recchi family preserves itself by jettisoning those unfortunate enough to orbit its periphery. One of the outsiders is Emma (Tilda Swinton) the Russian-born wife of the heir to the family business. She simultaneously occupies the center of the film and the edge of the Recchi continuum, far less secure of her place than her own children. When she falls into in an impossible love affair, it is the result of the perilous gap between herself and her circumstances.
While tear-jerking contortions remain the coin of the realm in television dramas, which burn through industrial quantities of plot, in cinema the revival of melodrama has been mostly the project of erudite directors like Todd Haynes and now Guadagnino. It’s worth considering Hayne’s Far From Heaven as a point of comparison. That film faithfully replicates the Sirkian kit of parts — plotting, style, characterization — while I am Love consistently privileges its own unique cinematic style over the development of the typical melodramatic plotlines one would expect to grow out of the film’s premise. The result in both cases is similar; both films revive the genre by forcing the viewer to see the melodrama’s inherent strangeness anew. Guadagnino sets up a situation fraught with conflict and then determinedly subjugates the resulting plot to the film’s fanatically detailed style, which is is more expressive than so called substance could ever be. To take one example, the tussle over the family business after the patriarch’s death might have sustained a television drama series for years, but here it is deliberately underplayed. At the big business meeting, the familiar rhythm of the dialogue becomes a backdrop to overwhelming surroundings, a London conference room wedged between Norman Foster’s Gherkin and Richard Rogers’s Lloyds of London tower.
Throughout, but especially in the opening birthday party, Guadagnino’s camera is active and disreputable, an intriguing combination. During the opening party, the camera seems to be revealing important clues as it relentlessly tracks and pans, but is in fact just as delirious as we are to be a gatecrasher in this fictional world. At several important moments, Guadagnino uses long lenses (is deep focus dead?) to frame barely focused fragments of life, further undermining exposition that a more conventional melodrama might telegraph in tidily framed continuity. The camera is so busy that when something important happens, it seems barely captured. As in cinema verité or the best of Altman, there appears to be no hierarchy among the shots — important moments of story or characterization are treated no more reverently than sunny closeups of wildflowers during an ecstatically overexposed love scene in a field above San Remo. The camera seems to have an emotional life of its own beyond the workaday task of recounting a familiar plot.
The musical score, fabricated from the works of John Adams, perhaps reveals Guadagnino’s intentions more than any other aspect of the film. The word melodrama derives from melos, the Greek word for music, and the traditional Hollywood melodrama is usually dependent on a lush orchestral score. In I am Love, Adams’ music resists appropriation by the film. Fragments from his oeuvre have been carefully chosen so that they seem to to underscore the action on screen, while remaining that little bit too insistent to submit to the story. Like the film’s parade of extraordinary buildings, clothes and food, the music is an emotional experience which exits alongside the film, as well as within it.
One effect of this privileging of objects is to further elevate Tilda Swinton, who is the only actor in the film allowed to to be as vivid as the decor. She gives a brave performance in a tough role. Movies in the 1950s were more concerned with the reasons for human behavior than they are today. Psychoanalysis was fashionable, and enough was expected of viewers that, to take one example, Sirk could casually refer to Thoreau in All that Heaven Allows in order to situate the Rock Hudson character within a particular tendency in American thought. Swinton’s performance just transpires. We have seen enough movies that there is no need to explain the reasons for her behavior. Some people will never be satisfied, though. One viewer in the Q & A session with Guadagnino which followed the Sydney Film Festival screening asked why Swinton did not speak Italian with a Russian accent in the film — certainly a big ask for a Scottish actress!
Much more could be gleaned from additional viewings of I am Love. It’s a defiantly original film with a strong sense of place, both the places in the film and its place within the history of film. It will no doubt be marketed as something of a foodie movie, but it comes highly recommended for architecture buffs as well. Certainly a chapter in the history of modern architecture in film will have to be written about that palazzo, dour and opulent, beautiful and appalling (it is the Villa Necchi Campiglio, built between 1932-35). At moments it looks like a price is no object version of historicist postmodernism, while at others the heritage of Fascist period architecture shines though to remind us of the family’s darker transgressions. It is not a period of modernist architecture we are accustomed to seeing on film and, thankfully, our reaction is not preprogrammed. I am Love’s great strength is its attention to unconventional details like this; sometimes style wakes up and finds itself substance.