Monday, August 2, 2010

That's the way I Am Love goes

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.


Paul Matwychuk said...

Nice review, JB! Please don't ever stop writing about movies for Vue Weekly, because SEE and the Journal's film knowledge is shaky at best.

I caught up with I AM LOVE this afternoon, and loved it, even the burpy final 30 minutes. *Especially* the burpy final 30 minutes! Loud music and lots of heartbroken actors crying do it for me every time, I guess.

JB said...

Thanks, Paul. Your support, as always, is appreciated. And I don't think I'll stop working for Vue any time soon. I'm poor!

I'm glad you were also swept up in I AM LOVE. I'm looking forward to going to see it again. The thing about the ending for me boils down to my essentially buying in to everything up to it, and then just not buying into the final confrontations (though I'll be curious to see how it sits with me on second viewing).

But if any musical accompaniment could make it work it would definitely be John Adams'. I finally caught up with SHUTTER ISLAND last night and the Adams stuff used in that movie is also quite quite commanding, even when used in a context that makes it seem hysterical. (Oh my god! The ferry's docking!) Of course, we are talking about a movie that takes place on an island asylum, which is even more potentially hysterical than a mansion full of repressed Italians.

Paul Matwychuk said...

I thought about SHUTTER ISLAND as well during I AM LOVE — I'm not enough of a musicologist to parse it all out, but you're certainly aware as you watch those movies that there's something *different* about those scores, something grander and more complex than you get in typical film scores. I agree that the music in both films borders on the hysterical, but I kind of like that berserk quality — especially since both films contains imagery that justifies all the sturm und drang on the soundtrack.

JB said...

Glancing at Adams' credits, I'm not sure if he's actually composed any original music for feature films--my understanding is that what we hear in I AM LOVE and SHUTTER ISLAND are reworkings of existing material. I don't know that much about him, but I'm hoping that these two big movies featuring his work might be the harbinger of things to come, meaning some original scores. There's obviously a very strong dose of Glass and Steve Reich, but there's that added, romantic strain of Bernard Herrmann bombast to what we hear in I AM LOVE and SHUTTER ISLAND that I can imagine making a perfect fusion with the work of certain filmmakers. How about it, Wong Kar Wai? David Cronenberg? Terence Malick?

Paul Matwychuk said...

You're right — the Adams music in I AM LOVE was not composed for the film. There are some excerpts from NIXON IN CHINA in there, some bits from SHAKER LOOPS, and elsewhere.

This topic is much on my mind lately, because I recently watched the documentary THE ART OF THE STEAL, which makes extensive use of old Philip Glass tracks, and which reminded me of what a documentary cliché Glass' music has become... thanks, Errol Morris!

I suppose I AM LOVE doesn't do anything technically different from ART OF THE STEAL, but at least Adams' music sounds fresher and less familiar by comparison. Come on, filmmakers, and stretch a little! You don't have to use Philip Glass! There's a whole wide world of John Adams and Gavin Bryars and Steve Reich out there for you!