The Ice-Queen cometh
I Am Love (Io sono l’amore)
I Am Love is a beautiful-looking film, with marvellous performances and an engaging story, that allows you to live vicariously the splendid life of a Milanese textile dynasty for two hours.
On myriad levels, it seems to steal themes and styles from some of the best films of the last half century. The opening titles plunge you back to the classics of the 1940s and ’50s, and set the scene with terrific anticipation. Much of the cinematography evokes the 1970s in its use of long shots as we find ourselves spying on our heroine as she stalks her young lover-to-be. The art direction is particularly Visconti (interestingly, the source material for I Am Love is a Thomas Mann novel, just as Death in Venice was), and in the opening scenes there are shades of Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (and by extension, therefore, Douglas Sirk’s oeuvre), in which another talented, beautiful and considerably warmer redhead, Julianne Moore, plays a frustrated housewife who has an affair with the “help”.
There are touches of Gosford Park in the intricately observed meals, table settings and interior decoration (as well as the inter-class philandering). The central love affair itself evokes Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance in Leaving (Partir) which also descends into melodrama and tragedy as the affair is revealed.
But above all, this film rests on two things: extravagant beauty of objects, food and people – and a phenomenal central performance by Tilda Swinton, as Emma. Swinton often plays cold characters (the White Witch in the Narnia movies is an unintentional pun), but in I Am Love she shows real warmth, at least towards her children and her devoted and maternal maid, Ida. Initially Emma is immaculate in appearance and conduct, befitting the wife of a textile mogul. It is notable that she warms up (as does the film’s lighting and colour at the same instant) the very moment she samples a dish prepared by young chef Antonio. They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but in this instance it is Emma who falls in love with the man she’s hardly met, via a (sumptuously photographed) plate of prawns. Before long she is making two-hour trips to Antonio’s house in San Remo, cutting off her lustrous hair, and rolling about meadows in the throes of sexual ecstasy.
The central romance, however, is the one thing that didn’t convince me. Emma’s obsession with Antonio is perhaps understandable (though for me it stretched the justification for her eventual behaviour), but Antonio’s part is underwritten such that it’s not clear what attracts him to her. As a result, I found the sex scenes (unusually!) neither exciting nor compelling, despite the full-frontal nudity and no-holds-barred close-ups. To that end, once tragedy strikes and Emma’s world spirals out of control, she lost my sympathy or understanding.
I liken this film to the experience of eating at a very fine restaurant and gorging oneself on exquisite dishes, then overdoing it at the end of the night by having coffee and dessert. They should have quit while they were ahead, and left us wanting more.