The folding Paris of Inception is impressive and all, but does it or anything else in cinemas this summer have anything on the rapturous images of spot-lit haute cuisine, lustful bodies entwined in sun-soaked idyll, or the magnificent architectures of Italian cities and Tilda Swinton’s face found in Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love? Does it say something about the tendencies of grand spectacle in today’s adult fare that the beauty, scale and ecstatic reveries of I Am Love finally feel like a bit of a beard for a story that’s arguably even more ridiculous than that of Inception? Whatever the case, I’m hardly immune to this stuff, so please take my critical reservations with a grain of the finest sea salt gathered from the shores of France.
It opens in wintry Milan, where the snow is virginal and cozily all-enveloping and causes no chill. The family of an aging textiles magnate gathers for his birthday. The house is a labyrinth of luxury. As dinner is served we tour the Recchi family photos, the dusk-lit furniture, the collections of Morandis. After the meal the patriarch rises to speak, the only illumination being the hard light bouncing off the long dining table, an ominously glowing centerpiece around which all are seated for a surprise announcement. The old man declares that he shall promptly retire and leave his empire under the care of not only his son but also his grandson Edoardo (Flavio Parenti)—apparently it takes two normal men to replace this titan of industry. You might presume the younger Recchi was selected to counter the elder with a modern sensibility toward business. In fact, it’s dad who will soon gallop toward globalization—and immediately thereafter to the bank—while the son clings to the past and his probably idealized memories of gramps lunching daily with the sweaty labourers. As I Am Love continues, Edoardo proves to be hopelessly, even tragically, out of step with the events transpiring either openly or clandestinely around him.
The other, more discreet inciting incident in I Am Love’s riveting first act is the late arrival of Edoardo’s new friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), another son of money, another naïve dreamer. He shows up to drop off a little something he prepared—Antonio turns out to be an inspired chef—before slipping away again into the night. Edoardo says he fell in love with Antonio—manly, Italian, platonic love, lest you get any funny ideas—after he tried his cooking. A similar sequence unfolds for Emma (Swinton), Edoardo’s beatific, hyper-organized, elegantly tailored, Russian-born mother, whose life becomes altered by Antonio’s visionary prawns, bathed in warm light, fresh herbs and glistening olive oil. Food is foreplay, followed by spontaneous shoplifting, and I Am Love, charging forward not only on the legs of Guadagnino’s colour-rich, zoom-drunk, almost cubist approach to coverage, but also the heart-pounding rush of the John Adams pastiche score, whisks Emma and the rest of us away to a hidden paradise of earthly delights straight out of Lady Chatterley.
High style locks into step with dizzy romance in I Am Love, and as long as Emma and Antonio’s erotic frolicking remains hidden from the twin forces of judging outsiders and sober storytelling, Guadagnino’s immaculate mise en scène, a glorious throwback to the heights of mid-century Hollywood melodrama—especially the films of Douglas Sirk—and mid-century European art cinema—especially the films of Luchino Visconti—carries us along on operatic waves of alluring symmetry that discourage consideration as to how deeply silly some of this feels. Then the third act starts and that silliness shoots up from below I Am Love’s delicate crust, delivering a combo-plate of familial apocalypse and overwrought wish fulfillment. The joys of I Am Love flutter ravishingly before our senses for a solid 90 minutes or so, but the pains of I Am Love burp upward in the last 30 and continue long after you’ve left the theatre. Should we recklessly throw ourselves into this fatty feast even if it all feels rather flimsy in the afterglow? Of course.