Luca Guadagnino’s “I Am Love” starts with the promise of a complex multifaceted study of passion, sexual and cultural identity, and how they all intersect in a traditional patriarchal family unit of the Italian bourgeoisie. Alas, by its third act, it appears to have left most of its ideas behind in order to morph into melodrama, by which point Guadagnino’s array of visual weapons – very long tracking shots, intellectual montages associating point-of-view shots to convey internal turmoil, blurred long-focal shots – lose the meaning that gave them emotional power and end up as little more than shallow theatrical tricks.
The film’s tale of one woman’s destructive passion wreaking havoc in her Italian upper-class family naturally invites comparisons to Luchino Visconti’s baroque masterpiece “Senso”, and indeed Guadagnino does succeed in giving “I Am Love” a sense of scale befitting the family’s social situation and the scope of the protagonist’s sensorial cravings. However, Tilda Swinton’s restrained portrayal of Emma Recchi’s internal emotional combustion offers a sharp contrast to the grandiloquent, wide-eyed passion Alida Valli conveyed as Livia Serpieri. And, for the first half of the film, most of Guadagnino’s style stays in line with Swinton’s performance, allowing its characters to slowly sink into the viewer’s mind and grow in the world they inhabit, through long and sometimes distant shots that unconsciously encourage the viewer to pay close attention to the actors’ body language.
One of the film’s potentially richest aspects turns into one of its biggest disappointments: The fluidity of Emma’s childrens’ sexuality, and its possible relation to her own erotic confusion. She accidentally discovers her daughter Elisabetta’s homosexuality through a CD containing a note detailing her love for a woman she met. The note was intended for her elder brother Edoardo, whom his namesake grandfather (Gabriele Ferzetti) appointed co-heir with his father to the family business – and who, by the film’s beginning, has already broken a family tradition by losing a race to his best friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). Edoardo and Antonio share a friendship so close that Edoardo is willing to risk properly running the family business by also opening and co-owning a restaurant with Antonio. The scenes involving the two – particularly their first meeting at the place where they plan to open their restaurant – ooze with untapped sexual tension. It’s present in their gazes, the silences and pauses, the careful sensuality with which Antonio places his food on the table, the way Guadagnino frames him doing so in a way that places the camera at Edo’s shoulder-level, giving the impression that the, like the viewer, is secretly admiring his friend’s body language. All of this would appear to set up a complex and quasi-incestuous love triangle as Emma starts a steamy affair with Antonio, a man who might have become her son’s lover. A son who also happens to be engaged to a woman who is pregnant with his child
Unfortunately, as soon as Emma and Antonio’s affair begins, the context surrounding it is gradually left behind, replaced by less important scenes involving an American investor Shai Kubelkian (Wes Anderson regular Waris Ahluwalia), who urges Edoardo to sell the company to him in order to save it. The complex flow of life and feelings is replaced by heavy-handed melodrama, whose shadow had already begun looming over the film in the scene where Emma noticed Antonio’s presence and started following him in an ill-advised gender-switched “Vertigo” homage – with Tilda Swinton sporting a hairstyle similar to Kim Novak’s iconic spiral in case the allusion lacked clarity. John Adams’s score, subdued until then, explodes in a sudden outburst of shrill incongruity that robs it of most of its dramatic effect. It is symptomatic of much of what is wrong with the film’s second half: An overabundance of stylistic and dramatic effects that, more than illustrate Emma’s perception of events, appear to cover up a lack of genuine inspiration on Guadagnino’s part.
The first cut of “I Am Love” reportedly ran at about 210 minutes before it was trimmed down to its current 118 minutes runtime. The loss is quite evident in the way so many characters – particularly Elisabetta, whose coming-out encourages Emma to take a first step towards following her desires – appear unfinished and only partially explored, and the contrivance of the film’s dramatic conclusion – Edoardo’s accidental death following an argument with his mother over her affair with Antonio he had just deduced. At its original cut, perhaps “I Am Love” could have been the profound study of sexual desire and personal aspirations in 21st century upper class Italy that it aspires to be and initially promises to be. As it is, however, it leaves the bittersweet taste of a half-accomplished work of culinary art.