“‘Happy’ is a word that makes one sad”
It only took one look at the American poster for Io sono l’amore [I Am Love] to know I needed to see the film. The use of typography over an elegant family portrait, blocking every face but star Tilda Swinton’s, is gorgeous and much more relevant to the work it represents than I’d ever imagine. Throughout the entire piece, characters are often seen with obstructions between them and the camera, giving the audience a voyeuristic view into the Italian family’s world. There is the common display of double doors—one open and the other closed—centered onscreen, portraying the very guarded nature of the Recchis, always hiding something from the others, secrets permeating each and every bond between them. These private maneuvers are always uncovered by either an accepting soul or an unforgiving one, adding drama every second to the overly ambitious story chock-full of deception and, simply, life.
When the film was introduced at the 360|365 George Eastman House Film Festival, we were given a tidbit of information told to the presenter secondhand from a talk with director Luca Guadagnino at Sundance. He said that the movie formed out of his and Swinton’s desire to tackle a melodrama together, exploring the traits inherent in the genre and exploiting them to tell this story of a wealthy family on the cusp of the new economic world facing them. Their money was accumulated through an industrial factory, the reigns of which are passed on during the opening act’s birthday party—a giant family get-together for the elder grandfather, a man with old-fashioned ideals, telling his granddaughter through a face of unmasked disappointment that she still owed him a drawing to replace the ‘novelty’ photo given as a gift, hoping his hard work would carry on through the generations to come. But the father/son duo it falls too argue about what direction to go; the youngest wishes to honor his grandfather’s wishes while the elder looks to sell for the future, retaining the name and identity, but passing on the big decisions to another company.
This event serves as the catalyst for everything that will follow. Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) is off on business now that he is in control of the company, leaving his wife Emma (Swinton) alone at home to busy herself in trifling affairs; outings with her mother-in-law seem to be the only source of entertainment during her day. Their son, Edoardo (Flavio Parenti), angered at what his father is doing to their family legacy, begins to put his efforts towards building a family with his new wife Eva (Diane Fleri) and to partnering with his chef friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) to open a new restaurant of delicious, experimental food while their daughter Betta (Alba Rohrwacher) starts to distance herself from the family, finding herself and her sexuality at college, afraid to confide in anyone, unknowing how they’d react. They all evolve off screen, chunks of time passing with the display of title cards, glossing over weddings and graduations to stick with the meatier, emotional turmoil of moving into a future full of disappointment, loneliness, and complete isolation—both physical and psychological.
At the center, though, lies Tilda Swinton’s mysterious puzzle of a woman. She, as the title says, is Love. Constantly living for the lives of those around her, she transplanted herself to Italy, forsaking her Russian heritage by not only changing her name to Emma, but also forgetting what it even was. The bourgeois lifestyle appeals to her sensibilities, yet bores her at the same time, leaving parties early to go upstairs and look through magazines or just turn in for the evening alone while Tancredi is off somewhere for work. Giving him her entire being, changing her own essence to make him happy, Emma has lost her way and her opinion, sleepwalking through her existence, day after day. When her precious Edo has a problem or news, she stops what she is doing to go to him; when Betta can hold her secret inside no longer, Emma listens intently and accepts the truth, something she had discovered earlier by accident anyway; and when the duty of attending lunch with her mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, she puts on the fancy clothes and the façade of happiness, keeping up the act. She is the manifestation of Love for the rest, undeserving of finding her own source; that is until Antonio’s sexuality, something we see her interested in early on, becomes too much to ignore.
I Am Love harkens back to the old days of cinematic melodrama, going much further into emotionally wrought territory, though. Populated by close-ups showing each actor in differing states of exaggerated expression, the film grabs hold and renders you helpless against the flowing stream of the family’s progression forward. You become swept up into the grandeur of locales, exquisite performances, and riveting declarations of love publically and privately, uncaring of the kind of consequences their actions may hold. It becomes a very professionally made daytime soap, offering the same type of heightened reality, only with the care and skill of trained performers and crew, making every decision a life or death situation, put to a beautiful backdrop of European settings with sprawling country greenery, bustling city streets, and exotic architectural wonders, (the building Swinton climbs up to look at the CD discovered in her son’s dry cleaning is breathtaking). Add to the cinematography a score so in tune with the visuals that you know it was filmed to the rhythm of its notes—music by John Adams, used at first without permission in hopes that once he’d see a cut he’d allow them to keep it as the underlying signature pulse—and the endeavor is a powerful piece of art worthy of exhibition.
And when it all appears to go too far into the melodramatic—even though that’s what it seeks to do—the excitement finds its way to a well-placed valley, allowing the audience to catch its breath and endure the next sharp climb up. So many details are included to retain our attention, objects continuing to play a part in crucial situations, like the stolen Alfred Stiglitz photography book, and made to appear as though they hold an important weight, forcing us to add extra meaning to things, increasing our emotional connection as we invest fully into the story at hand. Deliberate scenes become juxtaposed with sharp, quickly cut sequences such as a wonderfully constructed love scene composed of extreme close-ups and an abstract cropping of the two bodies involved, jumping to flowers and grass in the field surrounding them while the music builds, its staccato becoming the blueprint for the cuts, and its tempo mirroring the act on display.
But the truly unforgettable aspect of this contemporized throwback to a style of film long disappeared—even the opening titles recall the old RKO-type cards, worked over with a crisply modern sheen—is the climactic scene of full disclosure, portrayed by knowing glances devoid of speech after unspeakable tragedy upturns the Recchis irreparably. The music swells to its tipping point, crescendoing up higher and higher until you can no longer take the intensity anymore. And then, BAM! It’s over and the credits begin to play. What an invigorating feeling of absolute torture as the emotional bomb readies to explode, leaving you in a state of immobility, hopelessly needing answers or action that never come, so as to return back down to earth. Instead, you soak in what occurred during the past two hours, realizing how sometimes you must leave without saying goodbye to start anew. To be loved, sometimes you must leave all those you’ve loved behind.
 Tilda Swinton and Alba Rohrwacher in I AM LOVE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
 Edoardo Gabbriellini and Tilda Swinton in I AM LOVE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.