By his definitive 1964 film, Band of Outsiders, Jean-Luc Godard began crediting himself as Jean-Luc Cinéma Godard, a statement of intent and purpose matched only by the overwhelming energy his work brought to the art form. Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love is a similar-minded valentine to the power of film — it’s a tragic romance tarted up with the year’s most stunning visuals that, by its euphoric finale, has the film living up to its title.
Admittedly, I Am Love’s storyline is one we’ve seen before, but it’s portrayed with such aplomb and grace that it’s hard not to find oneself lost within. Stripped of all its nuance, and put simply for the sake of a newspaper review, middle-aged Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton), matriarch of the powerful Italian Recchi family, enters a torrid affair with the family’s new chef, Antonio Biscaglia (Edoardo Gabbrielini).
Set largely to John Adams’s The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra), the romance between Emma and Antonio is both passionate and suspenseful. Throughout, Guadagnino pays tribute to the past masters of cinema, his frame-by-frame visuals recalling the lushness of Douglas Sirk and Luchino Visconti melodramas.
Several visual motifs are borrowed directly from Alfred Hitchcock, the director who recommended filming murders like love scenes and filming love scenes like murders.
The film’s breathtaking, high-angle camera work recalls the stuff of Hitchcock, while elsewhere, there’s a direct homage to Kim Novak’s hypnotic haircut in Vertigo. In particular, the sequence where Emma spots Antonio wandering the streets of San Remo is positively thrilling, coming off like Vertigo’s famous San Francisco trailing scenes in reverse.
It would be easy to attack I Am Love as heavy-handed, but its makers would likely respond with a shrug of acceptance; the film’s self-awareness as an operatic tragedy is clearly embraced at the surface. But beneath Guadagnino’s extreme stylishness — the opening shots, depicting the family’s magnificent Milan villa blanketed in evening snow, are unforgettable, while the cast is decked in ultra-chic Fendi — beats a true human heart.
Through the reactions, and fates, of her children — family heir Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) and lesbian art-school daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) — Emma comes to accept her new love. The heart (and body) wants what it wants, and a moment of acceptance between mother and daughter is a major turning point for all involved. What was previously a spring-autumn love affair then becomes one woman’s summer of love.
For those of us watching, it’s a similar reminder to follow our hearts to the last glimpse of happiness. I Am Love’s final act transcends Guadagnino’s mere love of film — it’s proof of a love for love itself.