REVIEW: Tilda Swinton Dazzles in Virtuosic I Am Love

Movieline Score: 8
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A clamorous Italian counterpart to Summer Hours, last year's lyrical meditation on French tradition in decline, I Am Love also examines fading nationalist notions of legacy and institution through the story of a prominent family's slow slide from grace. Or that's one way to look at it: Bold, weird, and a little stalkerish in its intensity, Luca Guadagnino's third feature is an open cinematic buffet, as ready to satisfy as it is to displease, depending on your taste and appetite. It lends itself to a number of persuasive primary readings -- from proto-feminist awakening to sexual-identity crisis; bitter cultural critique to soaring infidelity melodrama; sui generis tour de force to sweaty exercise in the ecstasy of aesthetic influence -- and has plenty of flaws that might be dwelled on as well. It's a lot of movie; the choice is really yours.

The choice of Tilda Swinton to anchor this panoply is no mere casting coup: Guadagnino is something of a Swinton obsessive, and wrote this film for the actress after convincing her to star in a MASH-style short (Tilda Swinton The Love Factory) almost a decade ago. And yet I Am Love is no vanity project; if anything Swinton is pushed to Streep-like feats of above-and-beyond transformation: Oh what, she speaks Italian now? With a Russian accent, you say?

Yes, she speaks Italian now, and with almost the precise fluency one would acquire after 25 years in the country. As Emma Recchi, matriarch of a wealthy Italian family, Swinton is also called upon to project a timid, enigmatic gentility. A mother of three grown children, she long ago forfeited her claim on a recognizable inner life: As the wife of Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), who is heir to the family's textile conglomerate, she is there to keep the dinner parties running on time. After a series of evocative exterior shots of Milan being wrapped in a grey shawl of snow, we move into the heart of the Recchi villa, where one of those dinner parties is about to go off with a single, niggling hitch.

Ready to retire and pass on the reins, Tancredi's father stuns the gathered family -- which includes Emma's sons Edoardo Jr. (Flavio Parenti) and Gianluca (Mattia Zaccaro), and daughter Betta (Alba Rohrwacher) -- by insisting that the company be run by both Tancredi and Edoardo Jr (or Edo, as he is called). "It will take two men to replace me!" the old man crows, straining to exert influence over a future that has already confirmed his irrelevance. In one of the film's more interesting turnarounds, it is the younger Recchi who resists the move to sell after Edoardo Sr. dies; Tancredi is more than willing to sacrifice continuity for a chunk of change.

Several people dress and undress Emma over the course of I Am Love, beginning in the opening scene, when Tancredi is shown putting the pre-party finishing touches on his wife; in a partially obscured long shot, cuffs and a ring are slid onto her hands like boxing gloves. Emma is groomed down to the shine on her teeth, and in a series of sheath dresses, her strawberry blonde hair smoothed back into a Grace Kelly pompadour, Swinton is a portrait of urbane composure. When she meets Antonio (Edoardo Gabriellini), a chef and a friend of Edo's, she is as absently gracious as ever, hardly noticing his continued presence at the house. It is at a ladies' lunch several months later that Antonio's seafood ratatouille puts a spell on Emma; she gets so lost in his creation that she can barely look him in the eye when he comes out to take a bow.

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