High summer in the garden of love (Tilda Swinton in ‘I Am Love’)
Or, what we — that’s you, me and film reviewers — see in the movies.
I Am Love. (Io Sono L’amore.) What’s it about?
“Bored cougar finds young root. Or, Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Italian.” Take your pick, offered my partner. I happen to think it’s all about the Power of Love (surprise!).
As always, when curious about a polarising movie — I Am Love is full-blown art cinema, guaranteed to crushingly bore most of the pop. — I checked the comments At the Movies: they’re self-conscious ABC-users willing to articulate an opinion. On this movie, out of 55 responses (a relatively large number on the site), 54.5% voted 2.5 stars or less (inc. several zeroes); 14.5% at 3 to 3.5 stars; and 30% awarded it 4 stars or a max of five.
They really didn’t like it:
Janis: If this is Italian film at its best, then thank god I live in Australia, where we don’t get many!
BrianDD: This is the most boring film I have seen the whole year.
gingerbart: Truely [sic] terrible.
Vivoon: The plot was thin, the sex scenes were long and boring, the camera work was disturbing, the lighting could have been from a home movie in the seventies and the music was overly melodramatic. Tilda is just not sexy.
bazzaj: a dramatic version of master chef — enough said!
melodrama at it’s most cloying, indigestable and unpalatable awfulness.
is to italian cinema what the long meal is to gastronomy; overrated and excessively long.
the climactic moment is so over the top the second coming will seem like a let-down.
a triumph of style over substance
And they didn’t like the critics’, David’s and Margaret’s, reading of it either:
Sorely disappointed: Musical score irritating, hand held camera footage sickening, two hours of my life that I would like back Margaret needs to stop being such a sychophant whenever she interviews someone involved in her program.
mary: Several people in the theatre giggled at the swelling music in the love scene … Silly! The ending was a bit silly too with the crashing music … How could you be so taken in by a flashy veneer?
Chris: I’m starting to worry about you David and Margaret. You keep giving top ratings to slow and self important movies that tend to reaffirm the values of the inner city cafe clique.
Bil: Oh David. Oh Margaret. I’m afraid the generation gap has finally widened and I can’t trust your judgement any more.
BJ: What a dreary lot of codswallop … The review by Margaret and David has nothing to do with age, I am older than both of them and I was BORED RIGID.
Looking for a message
I thought the review over at Radio National’s MovieTime was quite telling. Jason di Rosso thinks “the film’s beauty is compelling. But it’s also distracting. At times it seems [director] Guadagnino is so enamoured with the world he depicts, he loses sight of his critique. Make no mistake, I Am Love is, at its core, meant to be a critique of money and tradition …
“While its sometimes overheated melodrama borders on the kitsch — at its best its cinematography, combined with rapturous music from John Adams, is simply breathtaking. Like its central character, it moves with its heart better than with its head. How much you enjoy it, will depend on which you choose to follow.” [Bolding mine]
So there you have it — a potentially brainy film critique of capitalism misled by its enraptured eye and then an irresponsible heart. That is, if you want a message. But not for nothing did movie mogul Sam Goldwyn say, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”
I prefer to see movies with the least possible information, but if you don’t intend to see I Am Love read the synopsis below (to stay innocent-ish, skip to the next par — I would) from Metacritic, where there is a nice rainbow of reviews:
I Am Love tells the story of the wealthy Recchi family, whose lives are undergoing sweeping changes. Eduardo Sr., the family patriarch, has decided to name a successor to the reins of his massive industrial company, surprising everyone by splitting power between his son Tancredi, and grandson Edo. But Edo dreams of opening a restaurant with his friend Antonio, a handsome and talented chef. At the heart of the family is Tancredi’s wife Emma, a Russian immigrant who has adopted the culture of Milan. An adoring and attentive mother, her existence is shocked to the core when she falls quickly and deeply in love with Edo’s friend and partner Antonio, and embarks on a passionate love affair that will change her family forever.
MasterChef meets art cinema, meets modern opera
So if we don’t want to watch a film like I Am Love for a message, how to go about it? And if we don’t want to be set up for disappointment by “silly” “cloying” melodrama with “irritating” “crashing” music like the ABC crowd above, what to do? I suspect we need to let go … because, well, because unless we let go, we’re not going anywhere.
If, as Kafka famously put it, “A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us,” Swinton and her director’s tool of choice is a prawn in sweet and sour sauce. The plot pivots — really pivots, like Kim Yu-Na — around two dishes: prawns with ratatouille at the start, and at the end, a clear Russian fish soup, Oucha. As the film begins in the grainy gray of a Milan winter, the food theme seeks to warm us up and enter the protagonists’ and our hearts through the stomach.
And it’s not for nothing that they have used opera music by John Adams, the contemporary American composer. The selections (youtube link) sounded something like Philip Glass in a sweaty passion — this was the excited accompaniment heightening the drama of various scenes, the music swelling– indeed –to a rare pitch of emotionalism.
And that is why we see early on, Emma, Swinton’s character, watching on TV the celebrated (and overwrought) scene in Philadelphia where Tom Hank’s character — dying of AIDS — does the opera queen thing as he hangs on to his drip stand and mimes to Callas singing Tosca. It presages a whole lotta shaking and slaking.
To succumb in the realm of the senses: Style v Content — Hitchcock’s sweet and sour apples
The love scene in the grass is one the New Yorker‘s estimable Anthony Lane thought unnecessary: “the visual vocabulary of alfresco coupling, as of alfresco dining, feels slightly stale; cunnilingus in the country is a fine and noble pastime, if on the ticklish side, but the cutaway shots of nodding grasses and greedy bees clambering over flowers to drink the liquid nectar are … a touch obvious … Yet the scene falls short for another and happier reason. We don’t need it.”
Here again we are reminded to just go with the artists’ offerings. It’s opera — it doesn’t have to make any “sense.”
I Am Love is a chance to lie back and think of the Italian countryside in full heady summer, to let your senses fall in love. We don’t really ask, or need, a painting — and there are many in this movie — to do anything much more than be beauty. And so often, because we have to spend two hours in the cinema dark — the two hours that “sorely disappointed” above wanted back — we ask a movie if it’s an obviously “respectable” one to bear a message, to have finely considered structures of logic in its plot or story. But conceptual density is not always the same as narrative/critical detailing: it could be like trying to translate a feeling into a thought.
Well, Swinton and Guadagnino had spent ten years planning this movie, and they wanted to make “a new kind of sensational cinema.” She says, “Hitchcock used to talk about the language of cinema, about the difference between content and style and why style is so much more important than content. He said that asking a filmmaker about the content of his film is like asking a painter about whether an apple he’d painted was sweet or sour. Luca and I started to talk about engaging with that.”
The prawn as hinge
The style in I Am Love is intoxicating, if you let go of the polite 0.05 sensual limits of conventional cinema. Get drunk and fall in love. Park your analytical brain in the back seat and let your senses do the driving. But don’t ask for the other kind of “sense” (even though its story is perfectly logical). Because I think Swinton and her art partner are kind of nuts, in the most exquisite and artisanal way. Last words go to Luca Guadagnino:
“Food, as an art – because in the film we have this great chef who prepares these incredible dishes that makes Emma, the Tilda Swinton character, become another woman … I like the idea of the traces that food can leave in your soul. When she eats the prawns you understand, thanks to Tilda, too, that nothing will be the same after that and that prawns will resonate in her forever. This is also a concept that I took from Marcel Proust. The memory of things that still is alive in you and makes for you the possibility of reviewing your life again and then proceeding over that. So her life changed through the prawn.”