It’s difficult to summarise the basic plot of the striking new Italian melodrama I Am Love (2009) without making the movie sound banal and over-familiar. Let’s just say that it revolves around the passions that erupt in a wealthy Milanese family - especially those experienced by the family matriarch, Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton). It’s clear that director Luca Guadagnino knows what he’s doing from the expertly constructed title sequence which presents the city under snow; it’s even more clear once the camera starts gliding around the inside of the Recchi mansion, and introducing us to the family members who have gathered together to celebrate the birthday of Grandfather Recchi. It’s at this function that two events occur - one involving a change in the running of the family business, the other an apparently inconsequential brief encounter - that set the movie’s plot in motion.
Apart from the film’s extreme stylishness (it's reminiscent at times of Hitchcock, Visconti and Scorsese), what I liked best about I Am Love is the seriousness with which it treats emotion and desire. The title is taken from Giordano’s opera Andrea Chenier, specifically the “Mamma Morta” aria used so memorably in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993); indeed, a clip from Demme’s film is surprisingly, and rather movingly, inserted into this one. There’s an operatic rapturousness to Guadagnino’s approach. Food is central to the characters’ interaction and also to the film’s (considerable) erotic appeal: it features the most sensuously-devoured prawn in movie history, as well as an extended outdoor sex scene that almost bests the one in François Ozon’s Criminal Lovers (1999). Swinton, “talking Italian” throughout, is as always superb: it’s tempting to call this her best-ever performance, but then every performance she gives seems to be her best. Still, her work here and in Erick Zonca’s Julia (2008) is particularly phenomenal, an inventive and unforgettable pair of performances.
I Am Love ’s ending? Well, it’s certainly one to debate, and, in truth, it didn’t quite work for me. There’s some clunky plotting in the last half hour, and the final sequence is, I think, over-wrought, failing to earn the emotional response it clearly seeks. For the most part, though, Guadagnino’s intense, vibrant movie is filmmaking of a very high order indeed.