That Luca Guadagnino's visually ravishing third feature works — despite frequently risible dialogue ("Happy is a word that makes one sad") and a notion of feminism that carbon-dates to around the time that Kate Chopin published The Awakening — is a testament to the film's loony sincerity and seductive voluptuousness, anchored by the magnificence of Tilda Swinton.
One of the film's producers, Swinton plays Emma Recchi, the unhappy, increasingly isolated Russian wife of Milanese industrialist Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and the mother of three adult children. She dutifully fulfills her upper-class wifely duties: studying a dinner-party seating chart with scrutiny; obeying her imperious mother-in-law (Visconti touchstone Marisa Berenson, perfectly cast); running errands in fantastic salmon-colored Jil Sander finery, her hair perfectly coifed.
A tiny frisson registers when Emma meets Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), the chef friend of her son Edo (Flavio Parenti). The matriarch thaws completely after she eats a plate of Antonio's prawns with ratatouille and sweet-and-sour sauce; clandestine visits to Sanremo follow, where Emma's chignon unravels, and she and Antonio do it al fresco. Edo discovers their secret, something bad happens, and Emma frees herself.
Feverishly pulling you in with its operatic sweep and its appeal to the primary senses — the bombastic John Adams score, the opulent old-world interiors, Yorick Le Saux's lush cinematography, and meal preparation and consumption as multiple orgasms — Guadagnino's film, which he wrote with three others, also earnestly attempts to overthrow sclerotic Continental patriarchy.
There's nothing especially novel, of course, about exploring the soul-crushing emptiness of marriage to a titan of industry. But I Am Love may be the first film in which the lonely heroine finds inspiration in her child's coming out. Emma's daughter, Betta (Alba Rohrwacher), first seen with long tresses and making out with her boyfriend, finds lady love while at art school in London and tells Mom all about it: "It's not a passing thing, I'm sure." Betta's confession causes something to shift in Emma, her own carnal curiosity slowly rising to the surface; the mother-daughter twinning is further underscored by their newly shorn hair.
The signs and symbols of Emma's emancipation may be ridiculously ham-handed, but that blunt obviousness is counterbalanced by Swinton's delicate, deft performance. Having learned not just Italian but how to speak the language with a Russian accent for her role, Swinton plays Emma as a woman further imprisoned by linguistic impasses. "When I moved to Milan, I stopped being Russian," Emma tells Antonio after some vigorous rutting. Swinton magically conveys two states of being, as a spectral presence and as a person of voracious appetites. Her physicality transforms depending on whether she is trapped at home and making small talk at a business dinner or sniffing trees with Antonio.
For all its corny social studies, I Am Love never forgets the lust that drives its narrative. Swinton and Gabbriellini make an extremely foxy couple, her translucent flesh complemented by his dark hair and beard. Their assignations are all action, little talk. When Guadagnino focuses solely on the primal, the effect is spellbinding. Only the words get in the way.