‘I am Love” is an ode to Tilda Swinton: Once she appears before the camera, directors such as Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino want to keep gazing at her forever. According to the production notes, Guadagnino says the project had been in the works for 16 years, and during that time he had never once thought of casting anyone else but Swinton.
The film may as well have been called “I am Tilda.” The story is almost beside the point — what anchors it and defines its spirit is Swinton, and when she’s not in the frame (which isn’t very often), the film takes on a different, far less radiant sheen. Is it wise for a director to stake so much on the presence of one actress? Guadagnino doesn’t seem to think so. In this sense, he and his film are perhaps stereotypically Italian: Hang everything on the centerpiece madonna, and leave the rest to God.
And Swinton’s role (at first) may be described as madonna with a vengeance. Emma (Swinton) is a Russian emigre, married to Milanese industrialist Tancredi Recchi (Pippo Delbono) and mother to three grown-up offspring. The family (one of the oldest in Milan) is firmly ensconced in the values of the haute bourgeoisie, and Emma spends her days scrutinizing the seating arrangements for the next dinner party, planning weekly menus and catering to her tyrannical, terrifying mother-in-law (Marisa Berenson).
At night, on the bed she shares with her husband, Emma stares up at the impossibly high ceiling and sighs with fatigue. For all her efforts at assimilation, the extended family still give Emma little digs about her oddness and foreign mannerisms. “I gave up being Russian when I came to Italy,” says Emma defiantly, but her discomfort is obvious.
Not only did Swinton master Italian to play Emma, she was coached to speak it with a Russian accent. The breathless lilt in her speech, contrasting with her perfectly coiffed hair and resplendent vermilion dresses, enhances Emma’s exotic charm. That this charm is more appreciated by outsiders than by her family is one of the pillars of this story, and you can almost see Guadagnino wringing his hands. Poor, lonely, misunderstood Emma! She even shares the same first name with Madame Bovary, the icon of privileged female discontent.
Ah, but what a fate awaits Emma. Her inner iceberg of sadness topples and melts when Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), the chef friend of her son, Edo (Flavio Parenti), comes on the scene and prepares a dish dedicated to her: a luscious, sensuous presentation of prawn and herbs in a sweet and sour sauce. Emma’s senses awaken and explode, and pretty soon, she and Antonio are tearing into each other on the grass in the countryside, under a brilliant summer sky.
“I am Love” is as exaggeratedly grandiose and self-important as its title suggests, yet Swinton manages to rise above the rather crass obviousness of the story to inject her own lofty mystery. In her late 40s at the time of shooting, Swinton remains gorgeously intriguing. Even in the throes of passion, it’s difficult to read Emma’s expression and fathom what she’s really thinking. When Edo gets wind of her affair with his best friend, Emma never gives way to desperation, and strides away from the problem much like a lady leaving a room whose decor is less than pleasing.
Interestingly, Emma becomes more relaxed when she visits her daughter Betta (Alba Rohrwacher) in London, where she’s attending an arts college. The only other presence apart from Emma with the power to move the story, Betta is a secret rebel, just like her mother. Unlike Emma, she’s quick to act on impulses and far less prone to let resentments fester. Ultimately, though, Betta is eclipsed by the sun that is her mother. Guadagnino turns the camera away from Betta, as if to say that the daughter is but an appendage and her mother’s personal liberation and happiness has far more weight and meaning.
In the end, “I am Love” is an apt tribute to Swinton, whose performances have consistently challenged audience perceptions of gender and standards of beauty, and who has kept pushing the envelope on what it means to be a woman. But it’s just that: a tribute. No questions are asked, no answers are given — it’s an invitation to wallow in the personality of Tilda Swinton. Talk about the royal treatment. She definitely ups Madame Bovary on that score.