Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Edoardo Gabbriellini, Alba Rohrwacher, Pippo Delbono, Diane Fleri, Maria Paiato, Marisa Berenson, Waris Ahluwalia, Gabriele Ferzetti
Written by: Luca Guadagnino, Barbara Alberti, Ivan Cotroneo, Walter Fasano, based on a story by Luca Guadagnino
Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality and nudity
Language: Italian, with English subtitles
Running Time: 120
Date: 09/05/2009

I Am Love (2010)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Simmering Melodrama

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Outlining the events of I Am Love will make it sound like a turgid melodrama. A middle-aged housewife has an affair with a younger man. A grown daughter has fallen in love with another woman. A son may have feelings for another man (although he is currently engaged to a beautiful girl). And the ungrateful son and grandson of the wealthy patriarch entertain selling the family business before the old man is even cold in his grave. One can almost picture Douglas Sirk making something out of all this (except the gay material, which would have been off-limits in Hollywood in the 1950s). And that's precisely what Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino has done. In other words, he does not lay out this material literally; rather, he finds the emotions inherent in the situations and shoots in such a way as to bring them out. Here, the story is less important than the experience.

Tilda Swinton plays the wife Emma, a Russian-born woman who married into the wealthy family and bore three children, two sons and a daughter. Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) is a racecar driver who loses a big race and befriends the winner, Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). Antionio is also a talented chef, and Edoardo agrees to help finance a new restaurant for him. It looks as if Edoardo may be interested in something more than friendship, but Emma is also intrigued and finds herself in an affair with the younger man. Meanwhile, her daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) comes out of the closet. The other son, Gianluca (Mattia Zaccaro), and his father, Emma's husband, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), have decided that the family textile business is not making enough money, and begin looking into selling it, much to the irritation of Edoardo.

Most of the movie focuses on Emma, and Swinton gives a truly remarkable performance, not only speaking Italian (with a Russian accent, presumably), but also carrying herself with the stiff assurance of a wife accustomed to doing her duties. (Swinton's mere presence seems to fit perfectly with the film's visual scheme.) She presides over family gatherings like a referee; she's not actually playing, but she has the power to toss the ball back into the game. The most exciting scenes are those depicting her affair, and her feverish attempts at "running into" Antionio, followed by their furtive first kiss. A later love scene is among the sexiest ever filmed; director Guadagnino sets the scene outdoors, and cuts body parts together with images of nature, building to an intoxicating rhythm. There's no shyness or shame, and it's all part of the natural scheme of the world.

Of course describing this scene doesn't quite do it justice; it's pure visual poetry. Guadagnino still has a couple more astounding sequences up his sleeve, the first involving a family tragedy, and then another one depicting a desperate escape; both are shown with very little dialogue, and very deliberate staging and cutting. Yet it's not self-consciously arty. Each shot and cut seems designed for a specific emotional impact. Guadagnino does this even in the most innocuous scenes, suddenly focusing on some stray detail, and sometimes even zooming in on it, as if to create a parallel emotion. I was not familiar with Guadagnino before this, but I wonder now where this gifted filmmaker has been hiding. He is a strong reminder that the cinema need not focus on story alone.

Pulitzer Prize winning composer John Adams contributes his first movie score to this film, which screened at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival.

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