Sundance Review: I Am Love
I caught I Am Love at a pre-screening in New York, drawn by the allure of Tilda Swinton, who is never boring onscreen, and the ability to get even the slightest leg up on Sundance viewing. An Italian art film with zero stars and a two-hour running time, I Am Love is a tough sell for a hectic Sundance schedule, but think of it this way: with lush visuals, beautiful Italian language and a weird psychosexual vibe unique to Europe, it's kind of like a Milan vacation high in the Rocky Mountains.
And despite all the problems I had while watching the movie-- the typical family melodramas, the incomprehensible ending-- I haven't been able to get I Am Love out of my head. Swinton is the center of it all as Emma, a Russian woman who met the son of an Italian textiles giant, fell in love, and was suddenly transported to Milan, renamed, and outfitted with all the wealth she could possibly imagine. Now with her children grown-- one is an art student tentatively coming out as a lesbian, one a handsome golden child with dreams of going into the restaurant business instead of joining the family dynasty-- Emma is at a crossroads, barely at home any more in the opulent world of her family.
As often happens with middle-aged female protagonists, Emma shakes up her life by having an affair with her son's chef friend. At his home in the mountains Emma has lots of sex, cuts her hair short and begins a transformation that even she barely understands. All the while, though, there are dinner parties to throw and extravagant dresses to wear and a relationship to carry on with her husband, who's usually too involved with the business to notice what she does one way or another. In the tradition of the Douglas Sirk heroine-- director Luca Guadagnino is nodding to Sirk in everything from the lush production design to the overwrought music-- Emma begins to break free-- but at what cost?
From the curlicue opening credits over a symphonic overture, I Am Love announces its intentions as a return to old-school Hollywood drama, but it's fascinating primarily when it takes off from there. Guadagnino finds mesmerizing the elements old Hollywood might have taken for granted-- bold carpets, high fashion, even the flora and fauna of the Italian mountains. Emma's awakening is an experience of the senses-- all that sex, all the food, all those clothes (or lack of them)-- and Guadagnino heightens the audience's senses in turn. I have no idea how much this version of Milan resembles reality, but God do I want to go there.
In its story and themes I Am Love may not be much more than the traditional melodrama, but its effect is much greater, all those colors and that music and that mesmerizing Tilda Swinton creating an emotional wallop-- even if you can't quite figure out what it is you're feeling.
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