Fri 2 Jul 2010
Making the art house rounds currently is director Luca Guagagnino’s “I Am Love”. Starring Tilda Swinton, the film focuses on one family in Milan, Italy. There is a lot of political subtext of which I’m no expert, mostly in relation to the textile factory they own and the passing of the reins. Then there’s the family dynamic itself, wherein their transplanted Russian matriarch (Swinton), having spent years being the dutiful wife and mother, finds herself taking up an affair with a young chef who is a friend of her son.
The film is impressive from a number of technical standpoints. Swinton learned to speak Italian for the film (with a Russian accent), rather than just being given the phonetic sounds of her lines. She has worked with Guadagnino before and it’s clear the pair trust each other. As always, her performance is spectacular and after seeing her play so many severe parts that rely more on strength and typical masculine characteristics, it’s a bit jarring but quite welcome to see her play such a feminine role.
Going along with Swinton’s impressive take on the character, the film also matches her emotional discoveries with the seasons of the year. Beginning in the cold winter, where Guadagnino and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux have drained the color palette, they continue to play with light and color as time progresses, slowly adding fresh colors for Spring, moving into rich reds and using the golden rays of the sun for Summer and then bringing those colors down a touch for Fall, as the film comes to a close.
The story is often told in lush and intimate visuals rather than long winded dialogue, relying on the audience to piece together the significance of Swinton’s actions and how they are affecting the family unit, her own state of mind, or both. The added element of food (she’s having sex with a chef after all) only heightens the sensuality of her journey.
All of this love I’m sending the film’s way doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t have reservations. I often found myself a bit bored by the deliberate and methodical peeling away of the families’ shiny veneer. There aren’t any surprises about where the story is going and it just seemed to take forever for Guadagnino and company to arrive at their destination (sort of a cinematic “Are we there yet?” from time to time).
Then there’s the use of score. All of the emotionally charged scenes are blasted with a cacophonous mass of sound and fury, signifying my desire for ear plugs. It’s a valid artistic choice but the scenes are well acted and don’t need to be punched up. The closing scene is the most egregious, and the manner in which the music builds only added to my befuddlement at exactly what had just happened over the course of time spent in the theater.
My confusion of certain elements stem from an inconsistent use of visual cues to relate the characters’ understanding of their situation. Swinton’s son realizes her extramarital efforts as a flash of previous scenes add up in his mind. Her husband, however, goes from unaware to incensed in the blink of an eye, sans the same deductive reasoning. He’s spent so much time not paying attention to her that becoming suddenly aware of what’s been going on seemed like an effort to wrap up the film as quickly as possible … which is the antithesis of how the project had unfolded to that point.
In the end, trying to determine who the audience for the film is a bit difficult. Unless you’re studying film technique or are looking to critically analyze how Guadagnino composed it overall, I’m not sure if this will resonate with audiences. I found myself being pushed and pulled at times, trying desperately to latch onto Swinton’s situation but being distracted by familial business squabbles that are lost on an American with no knowledge of Italian socio-economics and fighting the score for its brashness.
As such, although all of the actors do a very nice job and I appreciated the camera work and bold visual touches, I can only give “I Am Love” a 3 out of 5. When people complain about films being too “artsy”, this is perhaps a prime example of that and not one I’d recommend to anyone looking to ease themselves into the foreign cinema scene.