Set in Milan at the beginning of the 2000s, I Am Love begins with a series of stunningly beautiful shots of the Italian city in winter, combined with dramatic music and gorgeously hand drawn opening title graphics that recall the great European films of the 1950s. We are introduced to various members of the Recchi family who are gathering to celebrate their grandfather’s birthday, the man whose textile business has brought the family so much wealth. One of the family members gathered at this occasion is Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton), the Russian-born matriarch of the family whose son and husband are named as the joint successors of her father-in-law’s business. While initially seeming like it could develop into a Shakespearian drama of father versus son over control of the business, I Am Love instead focuses on Emma to develop into a film about emotional repression and what it takes to break free and experience passion despite its consequences.
The defining quality that makes I Am Love such captivating cinema is its extraordinary beauty. Writer/director Luca Guadagnino has made a visually transfixing film where the lyrical editing and gorgeous cinematography present the already visually arresting settings and decor in a way that is completely breathtaking. In particular, French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux’s tendency to slightly over-expose all his shots to give everything in the frame a radiant glow. The result is a mesmerising atmosphere that is made even more dreamlike when combined with the discordant score by minimalist composer John Adams.
Not completely dissimilar to the way Quentin Tarantino mines exploitation and B-grade cinema to inspire and reference his films, Guadagnino has appropriated and paid homage to many of the great art house directors as well as some key Hollywood directors. Guadagnino is extremely well versed in cinema history and academia so you could spend hours debating the points in which I Am Love evokes the films of Sergei Eisenstein, Michelangelo Antonioni, Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchcock. However, it really is the cinema of Luchino Visconti that is most recognisable as one of Guadagnino’s influences, especially The Leopard. However, while The Leopard’s themes of an upper class and older generation stepping aside to make way for the new have some thematic similarities to a number of the sub-plots in I Am Love, it is the rich visual detail in both films where the main distinction lies.
I Am Love is an astonishing film that deserves to be savoured although it struggles to maintain the initial level of interest after a particular plot development upsets its previously serene mood. Also, while the intense visuals are undeniably impressive, they don’t consistently connect to the story emotionally. Tilda Swinton delivers a bold and powerful performance as Emma although it would have been nice to see more of some of the other characters more fleshed out, in particular her two children who are breaking free of their family’s restraints in their own ways. Like Luke Ford’s A Single Man, I Am Love is somewhat a case of style over substance but at least that style is rich enough for it not to matter.