Tilda Swinton and Flavio Parenti, in 'I Am Love'

Dir. Luca Guadagnino
(2010, R, 120 min)
★ ★ ★

I was nonplused when I walked out of I Am Love. I liked it more as I thought about it. Then a little less. This review represents where I landed at the time of writing. Starring Tilda Swinton as Emma Recchi, the wife of a textile magnate, the story suggests Stella getting her Italian groove back, with direction by Luca Guadagnino that is alternately a benefit and a liability.

The film opens on a family dinner to celebrate the birthday of Edoardo Recchi Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti), an old man handing over the reins of his company to his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and grandson Edo (Flavio Parenti). The scenes are composed to emphasize physical spaces: stairways, bedrooms, drawing rooms, kitchens — big boxes of finery and privilege, currently filled with gossip about Edo’s social-climbing new girlfriend.

Soon the characters begin to escape their confines, some more easily than others. Emma’s change of heart begins with the discovery that her daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) is a lesbian. It first comes as a shock, but Emma gradually reaches acceptance, and we realize later that it was Elisabetta’s rejection of her prescribed social role that gives Emma the push she needs into the frontiers of her own identity and desires.

The love affair that commences is a rather abrupt development; Emma becomes attracted to her son Edo’s best friend, a chef named Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) with whom Edo plans to open a restaurant, and all of a sudden Emma is stalking him through the streets of San Remo. But the handling of their growing sexual tension, once established, is very good. Guadagnino ratchets up the erotic charge between them but keeps it on a low, sensuous simmer. Their fantasies are woven into scenes in such ways that we’re not immediately sure when their relationship crosses over from their imaginations into reality. The consummation of their affair bristles with anticipation.

With Antonio, Emma hikes, picnics, makes love in the grass; the outdoor scenes are presented as a stark contrast to the early depictions of material wealth, a transition from confinement to freedom. Emma was born and raised in Russia, but willingly gave up her heritage, even her name, when Tancredi married her and brought her to Italy. She has forgotten who she really is. Gradually, she remembers.

There is a parallel story arc, somewhat underdeveloped, about Edo’s disillusionment. His grandfather’s company is not what he thought it was, and his father has plans he didn’t sign up for. The upheaval is more than he can handle, and added to the changes in his mother and sister represents an irretrievable shift away from the security of his gilded-cage upbringing. He had an idea of his family, but they have ideas of their own.

The final scenes, whose events I won’t reveal, left me stranded. Guadagnino takes a sharp stylistic left turn from subtle, deliberate pacing to frantic edits, portentous close-ups, and grandly operatic music that match neither the prevailing style of the film nor the content of those scenes. It’s an extravagant crescendo to a film that wasn’t building to one.