'I Am Love': A 'Madame Bovary' For Our Century

Edoardo Gabbriellini, Tilda Swinton i i

I'll Have What She's Having: Edoardo Gabbriellini plays Antonio, a handsome young chef who woos Emma (Tilda Swinton) with a comically orgasmic prawn dish. Magnolia Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Magnolia Pictures
Edoardo Gabbriellini, Tilda Swinton

I'll Have What She's Having: Edoardo Gabbriellini plays Antonio, a handsome young chef who woos Emma (Tilda Swinton) with a comically orgasmic prawn dish.

Magnolia Pictures

I Am Love

  • Director: Luca Guadagnino
  • Genre: Art, Drama
  • Running Time: 120 minutes
Rated R for sexual situations, nudity.

With: Tilda Swinton, Alba Rohrwacher, Marisa Berenson, Edoardo Gabbriellini


(Recommended)

A few days ago, I was watching Criterion's breathtaking new Blu-ray edition of The Leopard, Luchino Visconti's story of an aristocratic Sicilian family dealing with the ultimate human truth — passing time. It's a wonderful film that seems all the more wonderful because it's the kind of intelligent, lavishly appointed adult drama that has become almost extinct.

That's one reason why I, and many other critics, are so high on the new Italian film I Am Love. Directed and co-written by Luca Guadagnino, I Am Love is a self-conscious throwback to an earlier style of filmmaking. It's sumptuous, operatic, and swooning with a passion so grand that, like most grand passions, or at least those of other people, it occasionally feels a bit silly.

Tilda Swinton stars as Emma, the Russian-born wife of Tancredo Recchi, the scion of a present-day Milanese dynasty that has made a fortune in the textiles business. Although this couple would appear to have it made — the Recchis enjoy every luxury, from a fabulous mansion to attractive children — Emma finds their life something of an ermine-lined prison. But she finds a way out when she meets Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a handsome young chef who happens to be the friend of her son, Edo. Transported by Antonio's cooking — her first taste of a prawn dish is almost comically orgasmic — the tamped-down Emma dives into a romance that threatens to shatter the Recchis' elegant world.

Now, a married woman taking a lover is hardly the world's newest story; just ask that other straying Emma, Ms. Bovary. But Guadagnino makes it feel fresh by looking to the past. He deliberately echoes masters like Visconti and Douglas Sirk, who used high style to capture romantic desires that carry their characters outside their ordinary lives. Guadagnino suffuses everything with beauty, be it Yorick Le Saux's fluid cinematography, the richly textured music by John Adams or the outfits especially designed for Swinton by Jil Sander and Fendi. Even the food was prepared by a Michelin-starred chef.

All of this reminds us, of course, that the Recchis have oodles of money. Not that Guadagnino beats them up for that. This is one movie about the rich you wouldn't mind living in, even if you wouldn't want to be a Recchi. Yet even as the movie lets us wallow in upper-crust glamour — which is one reason I've always liked going to the movies — it uses this glamour to evoke a transcendent passion that doesn't depend on fine things. It's no accident that Emma and Antonio find their truest bliss not in an exquisite Milanese house but, shades of Lady Chatterley, in his vegetable garden outside San Remo.

Tilda Swinton i i

An Updated Ms. Bovary: Tilda Swinton stars as Emma, the Russian-born wife of the head of a Milanese dynasty. Magnolia Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Magnolia Pictures
Tilda Swinton

An Updated Ms. Bovary: Tilda Swinton stars as Emma, the Russian-born wife of the head of a Milanese dynasty.

Magnolia Pictures

At the same time, Guadagnino takes care to do something that Tolstoy and Flaubert did. He puts Emma's affair within a changing social world. History is shifting beneath the Recchis' feet. The textile industry is becoming globalized, and while Emma's husband wants to sell out to international investors, her son, Edo, hopes to keep the business in the family and preserve its venerable traditions.

Edo might almost be seen as Guadagnino's alter ego, for the driving passion in I Am Love is his feeling for cinematic traditions that are all but gone. Not just style and beauty and glamour, but the belief — once commonplace, now radical — that movies ought to convey big emotions. Of course we all know firsthand that no emotion is bigger than the exalting, and disruptive, power of sexual love. Yet movies today obviously feel uncomfortable with such intense feeling — except, of course, for the adolescent ardor in Twilight, where the sex is famously deferred.

Things are more grown up in I Am Love, which wears its heart on its expensively tailored sleeve. Celebrating the emotion that most movies fear, it reminds us that a story about a middle-aged woman risking everything for love can be more thrilling — and explosive — than any action picture. (Recommended)

John Powers is film critic for Vogue and vogue.com

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