Words like "lush" and "gorgeous" don't even begin to scratch the surface in describing "I Am Love," Italian director Luca Guadagnino's retro-styled melodrama.
It's more like the most sumptuous design porn, lingering over every detail in the palatial home of a Milanese industrialist and his family, allowing plenty of time for us to ooh and ahh over the impeccably tasteful clothes, the rich furnishings, the exquisite meals. (Don't see this movie hungry.) From the sweeping, old-fashioned opening titles, "I Am Love" signals that we're in for a long, luxurious ride. This is a visual medium, after all, and in the tradition of Visconti and Sirk, Guadagnino expertly throws in everything he's got.
But despite these aesthetic trappings, an even more compelling factor is the most fundamental: the tour-de-force performance from its star, Tilda Swinton, speaking fluent Italian and even a little Russian in a couple of scenes. Swinton's transformation from perfect, moneyed wife and mother to ... well, we don't want to give too much away, but we'll just say her character becomes a purer form of herself when she finds true love. She becomes free.
The camera has always loved her striking, porcelain features: those formidable cheekbones and wide-set blue eyes. She's ravishing as Emma Recchi, flawlessly turned out for all occasions. But it's the subtle changes within her that drive the film, and allow the staggeringly versatile Swinton to prove there's more to her than we ever could have imagined.
Guadagnino takes his time, though, busying himself with the seemingly mundane minutiae of this family's life — observing the way they talk and exchange glances over the aging patriarch's birthday dinner, for example. But with the help of John Adams' score, he creates tension early and allows it to build steadily until the explosive finale. You know something's up for a while — you just don't know what it is. And Swinton, with her steely presence, gives away nothing until it's time.
The daughter of a Russian art dealer who married into a prominent Milan textile family, Emma would seem to have it all with her husband, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), and their three children: Edo (Flavio Parenti), Betta (Alba Rohrwacher) and Gianluca (Mattia Zaccaro). But changes are afoot that will tear them all in various directions. Among them, Edo decides he'd rather open a restaurant with his chef friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) than inherit the Recchi empire. And Betta has a personal awakening, which inspires Emma to take a chance of her own for once.
She finds herself drawn to the much younger Antonio and the care he takes with the meals he crafts. In no time she's sneaking up to his countryside hideaway — talking, cooking — and their languid, outdoor romp is deliriously sensual.
Yes, it all sounds like something out of a romance novel, we'll grant that. And the ending is probably too operatic for its own good; the climax also hits with jarring quickness, especially given the deliberate pace that preceded it. Then again, everything else about "I Am Love" is so rhapsodic, giving into the excess just feels right.