Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Consuming Consummations: "I Am Love"

The opening scenes of Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love immediately evoked memories of a great film that I was never able to finish. The stunning European architecture, the unabashedly depressing gray and snowfall, and the presentation of a family coming together for a special occasion had me mentally referring to the almost grotesque Christmas scenes in Ingmar Bergman's Fanny And Alexander. I generally love classic and contemporary European cinema, and I was expecting great things from what many would say is one of Bergman's best films. However, I was only able to watch roughly an hour and a half of it before bailing out, and the student in me felt like a philistine for not seeing it through to the end. That said, I felt a pang of trepidation in I Am Love's introductory scenes, all because of the stylistic connections. Of course, I truly didn't expect Guadagnino's film to follow the same path, and I found myself quietly compelled by the early beauty amongst the depressing, hidden wide shots. And whatever I expected in those first twenty minutes, whether outwardly or subconsciously, was put to rest throughout the film's entirety.

The beauty of I Am Love is that it's a film of nuances and blunt emotions, as well as a combination of the expected and the unexpected. The Recchis, a wealthy family with a lucrative textile company, gather for a birthday dinner held for their aging patriarch. Despite their opulent estate and team of cooks and housekeepers, they're completely focused on the party at hand, but there is an undercurrent of worry as to how the grandfather will accept the party. A few subplots are introduced, all of them with strong indications of causing problems: the young son Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) is bringing a new girlfriend to the party, a young woman from a less wealthy family; earlier in the day, Edoardo lost a race to a young chef, much to the dismay of his grandfather; and one of the granddaughters gives her grandfather a framed photograph as a gift, when the tradition is that his artistically inclined grandchildren give him paintings for him to hang. Yes, in hindsight, these may seem like laughable, bourgeoisie "problems," but the acting and editing gives these issues true, heightened worry. The audience expects a major fight or blow-up, but it never happens. These subplots give way to the more important outcomes of the dinner party: the grandfather announces his retirement, giving control of the textile company to Edoardo and his son (Edoardo's father) Tancredi. As the party winds down, Antonio, the chef who beat Edoardo, visits with a cake, a sort of peace offering for the results of the earlier competition.

This is an impressive collection of plot points for what is really just the opening of the film, and as the film progresses, a few more come into play as I Am Love jumps ahead to a few months after the party. Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton), Tancredi's wife, discovers that her daughter is a lesbian. Edoardo and Antonio (played by the very impressive Edoardo Gabbriellini) become close friends and potential partners in Antonio's dream to open a small restaurant in the elusive Italian countryside. Once again, this assortment of developments could steer the film into a dizzying, Magnolia-esque character study. However, a few of the items I've mentioned above either get put to the side or altogether forgotten, and in so many other instances, this could be viewed as poor film-making. I think I can make these statements without veering into spoiler territory, but the film quickly becomes a study of two different happenings. One, Emma and Antonio begin a heated love affair. Two, Edoardo proves himself to be a genuinely compassionate young man, which leads to tensions as a businessman.

The affair begins and ends with food. The attraction is almost immediate between Antonio and Emma, with the occasional glance and the occasional tic of worry that Tilda Swinton can pull of like no other actress. When dining with the women of the family at Antonio's restaurant, Emma falls for him even more while eating the dish he has prepared. The camera cuts between her face, which is tinted with sexual arousal, and closeups of the meal as it quickly disappears. Food and love/sex have been hallmarks of European cinema for decades now, and Emma's reaction is not played for comedic overindulgence, a la When Harry Met Sally. She's genuinely enamored with the meal, and the realization that it was prepared by Antonio simply makes her feelings that much more heightened. This is an excellent scene, and it becomes much more relevant at the film's conclusion, albeit with drastic consequences. The majority of Emma and Antonio's lovemaking is conventional, for lack of better words, except for their second meeting. Perhaps she viewed their first encounter as a fling and nothing more, but their second time is marked by the realization that more emotions are at stake beyond lust. Antonio undresses her in complete silence, and Emma offers no resistance. Her face is fearful, but her eyes imply that she's falling for Antonio deeply.

I Am Love is not "about" the affair, nor is it "about" the Recchi family as individuals or as a unit. Everything is connected, even if closure never comes to some of the film's potential climaxes. This is the rare film that mixes the everyday with the ambiguous, and while it's tempting to simply apply the labels of "philosophical" and "sociological," there is so much more at stake. Yes, the actions and character decisions have their philosophical undertones, and yes, staging the actions among a wealthy family calls into question ideas of class, emotion, and sociology. However, despite these accuracies, it would be unwise to pigeonhole or confine the film to a select few adjectives.

The acting in I Am Love is nearly perfect and gets a lot of emotional mileage out of understatement. Tilda Swinton's portrayal of Emma is compelling in the most literal sense. The course of the film suggests that she's headed for an emotional breakdown, and while this is true, it's handled very quietly and honestly. Swinton neither overacts or "underacts," and her facial expressions and body language are gripping. Her face can veer from ecstatic to nervous very quickly, but rarely is it obvious. Her eyes widen, her lips get tense, and her shoulders hunch, only hinting at what's going on in Emma's mind. Her Italian accent feels flawless, especially since she's holding her own with native Italian speakers. Flavio Parenti starts Edoardo off as a handsome, entitled young man, but the character goes beyond those stereotypical beginnings. He loves his wife, he's honorable, and he's undoubtedly devoted to Antonio, even though the young chef could have been a rival at the beginning. His failings as a businessman come about only because he's uneasy about layoffs and selling the family's company. These ideas aren't dragged out, but even in Italian cinema, American ideals are presented: nice, honorable people rarely seem to fit the bill as successful company presidents. Edoardo Gabbriellini makes Antonio much more than the standard young love interest. He's not callous about his affair with Emma, and a wonderful scene shows him shaking and fidgeting when they meet following their first tryst.

Guadagnino's direction is playful and creative without being a distraction, and combined with Yorick Le Saux's cinematography, I Am Love is one of the year's most visually gorgeous films. Shadows give way to blinding sunlight, and a lot of the scenes are hidden or filtered, whether through thick countryside foliage, door windows, reflections, or elaborate building designs. Perceptions might be obvious with some of the characters, but how they view everyone else is sometimes left up in the air. Guadagnino directs this idea by hiding what we know is happening (a countryside sex scene, for example), or intentionally making the points of view distracted or confined (below is a shot of Antonio in the kitchen).

The only real production problem in the film is the score by classical composer John Adams. For the most part, it's beautiful, but at times, it's distracting. It blends beautifully with the opening title sequence, which is done through heavy snow. However, a part of the score is played during a love scene between Antonio and Emma. The strings and intensity rise as she gets closer to orgasm, and it gets to the point that it's an insult to perception. We can clearly see that she's aroused, yet the score keeps getting more frantic. I'm not at all versed or educated in music theory or the intuitions of film scoring, but that one scene very nearly brought down the entire score as a whole. Perhaps if it had been done more casually, it might have worked, but for a film in which understatement goes such a long way, a blatant musical accentuation goes against the subtleties.

As this essay may very well prove, I Am Love is one of the more thought-provoking films I've seen this year. However, for the amount of discussion points and plot developments, I feel that I've left quite a few of the film's meanings up in the air or untouched. "Thought-provoking" may seem like a cop-out, but this is a film that works on thoughts, both of the characters, their intentions, and what the viewer ultimately decides should be the film's message. I Am Love is about family, or it's about individuals. It's about contemporary class, or it's about classic emotions. Or, as I mentioned above, it's best to put the ideas of "about" aside, and simply absorb the terrific ambition, casting, and production.


Bob Turnbull said...

Great review Jamie! I feel very much the same about the film (ie. I loved it). The score was odd in some spots, but I kinda liked the unexpected feelings it generated at times. Combined with some interesting editing choices, it created a weird state of paranoia and feeling of things about to crumble - exactly what the characters may have been feeling at those times.

Interesting that you mention Fanny and Alexander - did you try watching the full 5 hour version or was it the 3 hour release? When I first watched the film, I watched the 3 hour version. I thought it was OK, but almost bailed from it like you. I expressed my reservations to my friend (who had lent me the Criterion discs) and he insisted that I watch the 5 hour version. I put it of for awhile, but finally did it earlier this year. Wow. I was bowled over. I can't tell you what is different, but solely that the 5 hour version is phenomenal and has become one of my fave Bergman's (along with "Persona" and "Smiles Of A Summer Night"). The characters are richer for sure, but the arc of the story just makes more sense. And damn if I don't want to walk through Alexander's house...

James Yates said...

Thanks, Bob!

A funny aside--when I was checking my blog comments, I saw this post, and was horribly confused, since my most recent post was on True Grit, and I didn't check which post you were commenting upon...I was thinking to myself "When did I mention Fanny and Alexander in my True Grit review?

I definitely plan on screening I Am Love more in the future, and I'll try to keep a more open mind on the score. I don't have any other immediate examples, but I know the power of a seemingly "misplaced" score to heighten a scene or a film's emotions; just personally, the occasional use of it in this particular movie seemed overdone or too obvious.

I had tried to watch the three hour cut of F and A, and other friends of mine have been enthusiastic about it. Sometime in the early stages of 2011, I'll give it another go. Maybe I just wasn't in the right mindset.

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