In the cold, hard light of morning, Luca Guadagnino’s breakthrough feature feels less like a rapturous love affair than a pleasurable but functional one-night stand the details of which may grate and embarrass but over which one ends up obsessing, for good reasons and bad. On first viewing, the literally spotlit epiphany of desire that a plate of shrimp triggers in the film’s main character seems glorious—actually, it seemed a bit much at the time, too, but you went with it—yet with distance and time, it plays as blunt and more than faintly ridiculous, like many of the film’s flourishes. So, it might be said, is any coup de foudre when viewed coolly—and I Am Love is indeed predicated on the rush, intent on intoxicating and stunning through grand sweeps and pulse-quickening urgency, architecture and nature made vertiginous, and, above all, putting the melo back in melodrama through the sinus-clearing power of composer John Adams.
Tilda Swinton returns as . . . Tilda Swinton—the woman with a secret, as ever a headlong audience surrogate, though this time going easy on the mystical quirk. Swinton’s Emma Recchi is the dutiful Russian-born wife of a Milanese textile magnate; when the extended family gathers for the grandfather to announce his successor, she is there to smooth feathers with a quiet word or glance. And so it would continue according to script until her son Edo’s new friend, a talented young chef named Antonio (a mostly inert Edoardo Gabbriellini), enters the picture. The enchanting prawns are part of what sends Emma into a tizzy, though a subtler scene comes when we see her, invited by her daughter to visit, mentally realizing that the trip allows a detour down Antonio way—capturing the moment, which it is any romantic’s pleasure to savor in retrospect, when you first find yourself adapting your plans under the influence.
It’s a short step from there, as Jonathan Romney has rightly observed, to Lady Chatterley territory, both the rapturous bucolica of Pascale Ferran’s 2006 film adaptation and the fervid rhetoric over industry in Lawrence’s original text (repurposed to the globalization-speak that comes out of the mouth of an investor negotiating a takeover of the Recchi business). Emma dallies with Antonio in a shed by the house he aspires to turn into a restaurant with Edo’s help, as well as an alfresco fling that hums with flowers and sunbursts (handiwork of Ozon and Assayas DP Yorick Le Saux)—the spring romp to make the opening’s snow-covered gargoyles a distant memory. But what truly galvanizes the images (beyond their triggering memories of our love affairs with The Conformist or Vertigo) is the “score,” a tailored pastiche of extant Adams compositions that includes music from Nixon in China. It pulses along relentlessly, like a sonic EKG of Emma’s ever-more-dynamic highs and lows, perhaps never so emphatically as in the climactic sequence that purports to reveal the limits to the Recchis’ assimilation of this never-really-quite-Russian-seeming Russian.
The predictable end, which comes with an abruptness that feels altogether too constructed, completes the fantasy of transgression that’s at the heart of the movie’s appeal, however elaborate the trappings. Despite Guadagnino’s aspirations to greater significance (which seem to amount to: conservative dynastic families will bite you in the ass—and let’s not even get into the iffy sister solidarity between Emma and her lesbian daughter), it’s hard to escape I Am Love’s actual status as, well, an effectively crafted thrill ride yielding less than meets the eye. Pace claims to “reveal possibilities that you didn’t know existed in narrative cinema” (Romney again), I Am Love is too invested in forcing the surrender that should come naturally.