As often happens in Seattle, it was raining as I got on the bus to go see my first SIFF film, the Tilda Swinton vehicle I Am Love (she also served as an executive producer on the film).
I planned to get there at 6:30, since the movie started at 7. Then I saw the crowd from my bus, and thought I should have gotten there earlier. The entranceway was packed with people, and two lines (two) led out of the doors, one following the northern part of the building (the pass holders), the other hugging the south wall and ending near where the building ended (ticket holders). I got in the ticket holders line, even though I had yet to pick up my tickets. Luckily, I thought to ask the gentleman in front of me before it got too late (you’re only guaranteed a seat until ten minutes before the film starts, and I asked a little before 6:45), and he knew exactly where I needed to go–inside the doors (which is also where tickets could be purchased, though at the box office, not the table set up for will call tickets). I also picked up my ticket for Winter’s Bone there.
The rain cleared right after I got my will call tickets. As I returned to the line, I saw it begin to move, since it was 6:45, which is when tickets holders are allowed inside (pass holders get to go in a half hour before the show begins). I joined the tail-end.
Because I went alone, I found a really good seat on the floor, two seats in, on the left side of the theatre. The rest of the theatre was filled with people, including the balcony, which was just about full. I thought about taking photos, but 1.) I didn’t know if the flash would attract unwanted attention, 2.) I didn’t know if I was allowed (before the movie, why wouldn’t it be?), and 3.) I would be in here again for the Edward Norton tribute, so I could take pictures then.
Anyway, someone involved with the festival introduced the movie, and then….the previews began. Well okay, only one, and it was Winter’s Bone, so I couldn’t complain (unless you also count the promotional SIFF intro, too).
The movie opens with a snow-capped Milano (I’m going with the Italian spelling on this one. No Italian word should end with a consonant). The audience finds out, bit by bit, that today is Edoardo, Sr.’s birthday and that Edoardo, Jr. lost a race to a cook. In addition, Edo (Antonio Biscalia), as Edoardo, Jr. is called, has brought a girl, named Eva (Diane Fleri), to his grandfather’s birthday party.
The first person we see, however, is the maid, Ida (Maria Paiato), followed by Emma (Tilda Swinton), a Russian woman who married Edoardo, Sr.’s son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), thereby marrying into the Recchi family, and the family business (textiles).
During the dinner party, we discover that Edoardo, Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti) is dying, and that he’s a bit of a bastard. He expects a painting from his granddaughter (and Edo’s sister), Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher, who looks like she could be Tilda Swinton’s daughter). When she gives him a photograph, he says, “What is this?” and then tries to cover for his disappointment, fooling no one. He also kids Edoardo about losing the race and thereby breaking the family tradition (Edo actually tied with the baker, but believed the other man deserved it more), but there is more than a hint of disappointment in his joke.
The main purpose of this very long opening scene is to accomplish three things: to show the dynamic of the Recchi family, to note the passing of ownership of the family business from grandfather to his son and his son’s son, and to signal the first appearance of Antonio, the man who beat Edo in the race. He comes by with a cake in lieu of an apology (he thought Edo should have won). While giving the cake to Edo, he briefly meets Emma. There is a flash in her eyes, and the rest of us can guess what is going to happen next.
But first, a few months pass.
Edo and Tancredi are now running the family business. Edoardo, Sr. has died. Elisabetta has gone off to college in London. Antonio and Edo have become very good friends, and Edo promises to help his friend realize his dreams of launching his own restaurant, even though he would have to buy the property from his (Antonio’s) father, who is not as idealistic as his son is. The same can be said of Tancredi and Edo.
Edo has decided to ask Eva to marry him. In celebration, the Recchi women (Emma, and Edoardo, Sr.’s widow, Allegra) take Eva out to eat, at the restaurant that Antonio works in. It’s never a good sign when the audience laughs at a scene meant to be taken seriously, but when light reflects off of Swinton’s face as she looks at the prawns that Antonio has made for her, and then proceeds to chew them very slowly (never mind the fact that they already look incredibly phallic), there’s no way we in the audience could take it seriously. So again, we know what’s going to happen, but are made to wait.
Before this scene occurs, however, Emma has discovered, through a forgotten CD that Edo left in clothing that she is picking up from the dry cleaners, that Betta (as Elisabetta is referred to) has “been with a woman.” When Emma picks her up later at the train station, she finds that Betta has cut her hair short, like a boy. Under the pretense of going to see some art Betta has exhibited in Nice, she secretly thinks of going to see Antonio at his garden, which is along the way, in Sanremo. And wouldn’t you know it, she runs into him on the street there!
I see that I have written many more notes here, but if I continue with the synopsis, we’ll never get to the review. So let’s hurry up the movie a bit, shall we? Emma and Antonio go to his garden and kiss. Later, they consummate the relationship in one of the most unromantic sex scenes ever (Antonio takes off Emma’s clothing and his own as if it were a business affair, which may be closer to reality, but then later scenes with images of berries and flowers and fruit interspersed with fucking go the opposite direction). Meanwhile, Edo doesn’t like how his grandfather’s company is being run. Eventually, through a soup that Antonio makes for a business meeting at the Recchi’s house–a soup that Edo loved as a child, a soup that his mother made when she felt nostalgic for Russia, a soup that was served at the celebration at the beginning of this film, a soup that she has now taught Antonio how to make–along with other clues that he has picked up along the way (a book found here, some hair found at Antonio’s that belongs to Emma), Edo realizes the truth. This leads to a confrontation, with tragic results for the family.
Though the movie is called I Am Love, I found it strange that I felt the most emotionally powerful scenes didn’t have to do with love at all, but with the melodrama that unfolds near the climax of this film. The only real passion is in the tragedy, not in the love-making. Thank God it comes at all, or this film would be as emotionally empty as most modern art. In fact, a lot of that empty feeling comes from the musical score by John Adams. Except for the end of the film, where we finally get some emotion in the music as well as in the characters, the musical soundtrack transforms turn of the (21st) century Italy into the machinery of the Industrial Revolution. The “following” music–when Emma is following Antonio through the streets of Sanremo–is comical, and indeed invoked some laughs from the audience.
Another problem with the film can be laid at the feet of the director, Luca Guadagnino, and whoever edited this film. Some scenes are held too long for no apparent reason. For example, when Antonio drives Emma to his garden, we get to see most of their journey there–but each shot is only five seconds or so long. Okay, the road becomes windier and more rural as we climb. I get it. You could have reduced multiple quick takes to two shots.
Guadagnino also tries to be too artsy at times, which is when this movie devolves into pretentious, artistic crap. Having Betta talk directly to the camera about her love affair as her mother reads her note in the CD case, using the aforementioned cuts between the act of sex and images of fruit, flowers, and insects (which, I may add, have been overused as metaphors for intercourse), and showing the beauty of Italy in long shots that loosen the threads of the flow of the narrative may be pretty, but they don’t move the story along, nor are they the best ways of conveying what those scenes are about. The only truly artistic use of the camera that works is when Edo is tasting the soup and then, through a series of quick cuts to the clues he has found earlier in the movie, pieces together the situation between his mother and Antonio.
The silver lining is the acting, which is uniformly excellent, especially from Biscalia as Edo and Swinton as Emma. Tilda Swinton. Is there anything this woman can’t do? In this movie, she speaks Italian and Russian, and acts with her face and eyes in ways that would make other actors and actresses envious. She is especially good at conveying indecision or conflicting emotions through her expressions, as well as the realization of certain truths that she thought buried forever. This role allows her to play a variety of emotions, from reserved to giddy, from happy to sad, from trapped to free. One of my favorite scenes is when she goes to her room after Antonio has kissed her. She acts like a giddy schoolgirl, her hand over her mouth, her eyes laughing, as if she’s surprised that such joy exists in the world, surprised that such joy can be felt by a human being.
So what is this movie about? Due to the pretentiousness of too many scenes, and an editor who should have been more merciless in cutting this film, I am not sure, but if I were to guess, I would say that it’s about love (and not just because it’s in the title). In the movie, we see the relationship between parents and children, husbands and wives, between family members, lovers, men and women, women and women, and servants and masters, the last one seen most clearly in the relationship between Ida and Emma. Some of these relationships contain love. Some do not. Seen in this light, Emma’s decision at the end of the film makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is why this story wasn’t made into a better film.
Note: Each SIFF film in competition for the Golden Space Needle Award is ranked by each audience member on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being atrocious, 5 being excellent. There were no half numbers, so while I would give this movie 2.5 out of 5 (Swinton’s performance earns the film a .5), I gave it a 2 out of 5 on the ballot.