Classically speaking, women who succumb to grand passion rarely live happily ever after. They drown themselves, murder their children, end up mad in an attic or under a train. So it’s no surprise when Emma, the central character of Luca Guadagnino’s gorgeous film I Am Love, meets tragedy soon after meeting her great love.

The movie begins in Milan, in the elegant villa of the wealthy Recchi family. The patriarch, Edoardo, is in poor health and over a formal dinner so carefully orchestrated that it feels like an affair of state, he announces he is leaving the family’s textile business to his son Tancredi as expected. In a Lear-esque twist, he adds that his eldest grandson Edoardo Jr., affectionately called Edo, will have equal control.

They may feel and behave like royalty, but the Recchis resemble nothing so much as a mafia dynasty. The dom, Edoardo, is not to be crossed. His loyal wife Allegra comports herself as a queen, and the entire family pays him respect and homage.

Presiding over all of this with an air of calm detachment is Emma, the wife of Tancredi. She is a vision of perfection, from her impeccable clothing and elegant carriage to the precision with which she choreographs the dinner party or accommodates an extra guest. Although warm and encouraging with her children, she seems frozen in her marriage and in her place within the Recchi family. Her meticulous attitude matches her looks—she appears to be made of alabaster.

But we eventually learn there is more to Emma’s story. Despite her facade as a perfect Milanese signora, Emma is actually Russian. Tancredi found her years before and acquired her as one would a work of art, then installed her in his mausoleum of a villa. There, after Edoardo’s dinner, a young chef named Antonio arrives with a cake for Edo. Although Emma meets him, the encounter means nothing until months later.

Several events combine to wake Emma from her emotional sleep. She finds a note that her daughter Elisabetta has written to Edo. In it, Elisabetta confesses to having been with one woman and to being in love with another. At first shocked, Emma not only accepts her daughter’s choice, but allows it to open her eyes to the possibility of passion.

Soon, Emma and Allegra take Edo’s fiancée for lunch to Antonio’s father’s restaurant. Out of love for his friend Edo, Antonio creates a fantastic meal for them. Emma’s delirium over a plate of prawns is the next step in her sensual reawakening. She follows Antonio to Sanremo and there, in a glorious wilderness of nature, begins a love affair that will have lasting and tragic consequences for the Recchi family.

The movie is breathtakingly beautiful, whether depicting the dark and dramatic villa in Milan or the field in Sanremo, literally crawling with life. But it moves slowly and the direction is heavy-handed. Guadagnino is a deliberate auteur with a distinct point of view, from his retro opening credits to his choice of avant-garde composer John Adams for the score. The love scenes in particular combine explicit, shameless nudity with metaphorical, drawn out shots of nature. The clichés are so obvious that they comment not only on Emma’s return to the natural world but become almost a film within the film. That said, it’s still a must-see, and if at all possible on the big screen: this is a movie that will lose much of its power and emotional effect when it’s released on DVD.

Without a doubt, the most extraordinary thing about I Am Love is Tilda Swinton’s performance. It is difficult to imagine any other actress in the role of Emma, and indeed Guadagnino developed the part for and with her. Swinton is universally recognized as a serious actor, and has been honored with dozens of prizes from film festivals, as well as the Academy Award for 2007’s Michael Clayton. She’s appeared in more than 50 films, but her unusual androgynous looks are not typical Hollywood leading lady. She is as often in the press for her daring red-carpet ensembles and non-traditional love life as she is for her work.

But I Am Love is different. As Emma, Swinton is poignantly accessible—her ice queen is as fragile as she is cold. And when Emma finally reconnects with her own desires, Swinton embodies her with such unbridled joy that we can’t help but revel along with her. When tragedy strikes, brought on by her decisions, she is able to convey unthinkable grief by stripping herself to the very bone. She doesn’t speak and barely moves as her world crashes in. It is a virtuosic piece of acting that should put Swinton on the short list for another Oscar.

I Am Love is Emma’s story without a doubt, but Guadagnino has surrounded Swinton with other fine actresses. Marissa Berenson is majestic as Allegra, and it’s wonderful to see a beautiful actress who has been allowed to age beautifully with nary a nip nor tuck in sight. Alba Rohrwacher as Elisabetta reminds one of a young Meryl Streep in the tender truthfulness of her acting as well as her dewy looks. And Diane Fleri, as Edo’s bride, is particularly moving in a smaller part. She is able to convey how—even pregnant with Edo’s child—it is impossible to join the emotionally barricaded Recchi family.

One of the most tender relationships in the movie is the friendship between Emma and housekeeper Ida, played by Maria Paiato. Emma too, it seems, is still an outsider in the Recchi household and at times Ida is her only friend. When the film reaches its climatic close, we see the real depth and power of their friendship.

When Emma chooses to act on her lust—and eventually love—for Antonio, she is betraying her husband, her class, and the family. But she is also specifically betraying her son. Edo’s great affection for Antonio is passionate and extremely physical, although not sexual. When Edo deduces the affair, he is as hurt by his friend’s part in it as he is by his mother’s. This strange love triangle is at the heart of the tragedy that unfolds once Emma’s infidelity is discovered.

Traditionally, when heroines are punished for their passions, there is a sense that their tragic ends were deserved. Quite literally, “they made their beds …”  The ending of I Am Love starts out this way. We see horror, culpability and defeat on Emma’s face. She has broken the rules and the consequences are unbearable. We expect her to die—if not literally, then at least that part of her that was reborn in the love affair.

But Emma does not die. In fact, she refuses to accept her punishment and chooses life as she has redefined it. The last five minutes of the film are an extraordinary affirmation of free will and self-worth, and redemption for centuries of female characters forced to sacrifice it all for passion.

I, for one, am in love with I Am Love.


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