Bold, refreshing and unorthodox as ever in her choice of projects, Tilda Swinton takes the lead in this family drama from Italian film-maker Luca Guadagnino, with whom she has worked twice in the past, on The Protagonists (1999) and The Love Factory (2002). With her vividly otherworldly and almost extra-terrestrial screen presence, Swinton is perfectly cast in this elegant, if over-determined and slightly desiccated piece of cinema. She plays Emma, a beautiful and stylish Russian-born woman who has become assimiliated into the moneyed upper-middle classes of contemporary Milan, by virtue of marrying Tancredi Recchi (Pippo Delbono); this is the wealthy, middle-aged heir apparent to a colossally profitable textile empire founded by the formidable, elderly industrialist Edoardo Recchi Sr (Gabriele Ferzetti).
Her Italian is to all intents and purposes flawless. Her dress sense is sensational. She is richly affectionate and warm to the grown-up children of the family in exactly the right way, intimate and confiding to the daughters and wives, a good mistress to the domestic staff, and to the powerful menfolk she is to the perfect degree candid, yet supportive and deferential. She understands entirely what is expected of her, in an almost constitutional sense, when old Edouardo passes on and she assumes the matriarchal responsibility for the family firm. And yet she looks and sounds different from everyone else around her – the way Swinton must, perhaps – and there is a submerged potential for disruption, which begins to surface just as Emma begins to enter into her (compromised) inheritance.
Family meals are always important, and the preparation of a certain Russian dish is to be particularly important. Emma is exacting about culinary standards. But the emphasis here is not the stereotypical affirmation of sensuality and life through food, rather it is more about ceremony and ritual: the meal is a secular high mass invoking the divinity of family responsibilities – responsibilities Emma is about to reject, spectacularly. The film begins in the snowbound environs of wintry Milan and ends in the glowing sunshine of Sanremo, a climbing temperature that mirrors the movie's emotional trajectory.
Emma's upheaval begins when we see how instinctively, even passionately she sympathises with her daughter Betta (Alba Rohrwacher), an art student in London, when she finds out that Betta is gay and has fallen in love with a woman. Betta's personal change in world view is cleverly, indirectly signalled at a family dinner, at which the tradition is that she presents old Edouardo with a new drawing. This year she gives him a framed photograph, because this is the artform that interests her more these days, and the change displeases the old man, nettled by any novelty that he has not explicitly licensed. Emma smoothes over the potential scene, and yet it creates a distinct sense of unease with the rest of the family, which comes to a head when Emma meets Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), who is going into the restaurant business with her son, Edoardo. There is an invisible, but intense lightning-flash of attraction between them.
Guadagnino's film, influenced perhaps by Antonioni, is about the ennui and withdrawal of Italy's wealthy and patrician classes, and perhaps about their psychological stagnancy – the way they have displaced their emotional lives into maintaining the institutions of family and property. Emma is an outsider. She can pastiche the mannerisms of the Italian overclass, but her bursts of Russian, which she subversively directs at her Italian son – for whom it is a kind of secret language for private communications – shows that she is in this world but not of it. But who is Emma? The answer is, perhaps, provided by the title: Io Sono l'Amore, I Am Love. Is Emma "love", an intense, dammed-up capacity for love that founds its expression for the very first time in middle age?
Maybe. There is an intense eroticism in her relationship with Antonio, but something elusive in narrative terms, because Emma does not seem to be any more personally open after this great awakening, than before it. For all the sensual abandon, Swinton's Emma is still superbly self-possessed and self-enclosed: not actressy in the way she can sometimes be, but nevertheless with a certain opacity in her performance.
The action of the movie is closed off, a little arbitrarily, with a cataclysmic event, and Guadagnino handles the resulting performances and scenes perfectly well, but I couldn't help finding something overclamorous in them. Emma is to find an instinctive ally in the household retainer – again, a slightly forced development – and her urge to escape becomes manifest.
I Am Love is an arresting film in many ways, displaying, in parallel with the Recchi family's theatrical deployment of the trappings of wealth, its own bracing and astringent sense of technique. It's a high-IQ picture – there are few enough of those – and it's fascinating, if a little bloodless. A gorgeously costumed and styled piece of work.
- Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian