Last Wednesday I went to the BFI to watch a preview of Tilda Swinton and Luca Guadagnino’s new operatic masterpiece- ‘I am Love’.
I was excited to see the film but if I’m completely honest, I was even more excited to see the flame-haired star with her disarming, alien beauty who was scheduled to give a Q and A with her co-creator Luca Guadagnino after the film. In striking navy and mustard silks with luminous skin and incredibly insightful responses, she did not disappoint either aesthetically or intellectually.
‘I am Love’ is a modern masterpiece with an old-fashioned soul.
Guadagnino is a 21st century Fellini- transporting the viewer through seductive, highly polished images of a remote, and ridiculously rich Italian family into a hidden enclave of dynastic machinations and moneyed intrigue.
The narrative centres around the Recchi family and the sweeping changes they experience with the death of the patriarchal ‘ head of the family’ who has decided to name a successor to the reigns of his massive industrial company, but surprises everyone by splitting power between his son Tancredi, and grandson Edo.
Dreamy Edo is the link with another, more soulful Italy of rugged landscapes and untamed passions- for sex and for food! (In ‘I am Love’ the shots of food- being both prepared and eaten are filmed with the same erotic intensity as the love scenes, to the extent that Swinton joked that Guadagnino had made a gastro porno.) Edo dreams of opening a restaurant with his friend Antonio, a handsome and talented chef, who embodies this other, Romantic Italy.
Tilda Swinton plays Edo’s mother Emma, an aloof Russian immigrant who has apparently and superficially adopted the culture of Milan following her marriage to Tancredi. A devoted mother, her sanity and stability begin to unravel when she falls quickly and deeply in love with Edo’s friend and partner Antonio, and embarks on a passionate love affair that ends in the most unexpected tragedy.
Swinton and Guadagnino have created a film of luxuriant material beauty set against the very distinct beauty of wild, accidental, instinctive attraction. It seems to play on the cultural guilt attached to the pleasure we locate in exquisite Hermes handbags, or extravagant parties that conjure a sort of ephemeral perfection. Our gasps of aesthetic (or materialist) pleasure implicate us in the culture the film satirises.
It is this critical element which has garnered ‘I am Love’ such a hostile response in Italy- something which Luca and Tilda discussed in the post-film Q and A. (They also discuss the grandiose soundtrack which was the one aspect of the film which, I must admit, at points I found reduced certain episodes to near-absurdity, such was the pitch of the melodrama!)
It goes without saying that Swinton makes the most exquisite leading lady, but it was the sensitive filming of her imperfections, particularly in the Lady Chatterly-esque loves scenes that I don’t seem to have been able to shake from my mind. We’ve become so used to seeing a plastic, re-touched version of femininiy that seeing a beautiful, but real female body has assumed an almost monumental meaning. I felt genuinely moved to view a nude figure which was at once beautiful and yet identifiable with the reality of female flesh. In the simple act of returning the admiring human gaze (of that auditorium, that evening) to a real female body, Swinton and Guadagnino seemed to have pulled off the incredible feat of, if only momentarily, restoring our cultural sanity. Sure it’s operatic, melodramatic and as OTT as a Baroque and suitably Italian church, but the lucid return to beauty alone is reason enough to go and see this film!
Showing in cinemas from April 9.