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Film Club: ‘I Am Love’

Another Showcase for Tilda Swinton

Tilda Swinton (in red) is the matriarch of a wealthy Italian family in

Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Above: Tilda Swinton (in red) is the matriarch of a wealthy Italian family in "I Am Love"


Host Maureen Cavanaugh discusses "I Am Love" with film critics Beth Accomando, Scott Marks, and Anders Wright on the KPBS Film Club of the Air.


Okay I prematurely posted this last week when I thought the film was opening so here it is again and it really is opening! I am not a fan of romantic movies but "I Am Love" (opening July 2 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) dives into its romance with such reckless abandon and such an over the top affection for cinema that I could not resist. You can read my review and/or listen to our Film Club Discussion.

What also makes "I Am Love" irresistible is actress Tilda Swinton. Quite simply she is magnificent. She never gives a conventional performance even when it's in a Hollywood mainstream movie like "Michael Clayton" (for which she won an Oscar). She is endlessly fascinating and a film like "I Am Love" gives her a challenging role in which to shine.

The story is the stuff of 50s melodramas or perhaps Greek tragedy (depends which aspect you want to focus on). Swinton plays Emma Recchi, the matriarch of a wealthy Italian family. She is elegant, pampered, and somewhat removed from the real world. But she is also an outsider that no amount of wealth and no marriage ties can change. She is from Russia and has tried as best she can to assimilate to Italy. She has beautiful children and a loving husband. It seems a perfect world. But of course cracks appear. Her daughter reveals her affection for another woman; the family business has just been handed down to her husband and son who happen to have differing views on how to run it; and her affections are suddenly drawn to her son's friend who is a chef.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Magnolia Pictures

Tilda Swinton in "I Am Love"

Not since Peter Greenaway's films have I seen a film that is so opulently over the top in its emotions. Director Luca Guadagnino employs composer John Adams (who wrote the opera "Nixon in China") to create a score that plays up the emotions of the characters with a combination of ripe melodrama and operatic overstatement. At times it seems almost too much and yet you get caught up in the Emma's romantic upheaval. But there is another romance at work as well, that of Guadagnino for cinema itself. His film references Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk as well as Visconti and Bertolucci. Just as Emma is seduced by luscious meals, Guadagnino tries to seduce the audience with delectable morsels sampled from other films.

My only real complaint about the film is that it succeeds so well in capturing Emma's subjective point of view that whenever it strayed from that -- mostly to deal with the family business and the dynamic between father and son -- it felt like a misstep. I would be completely inside Emma's world but then Guadagnino would pull me out for a scene in which she had no part. Part of the problem may be that the importance of these scenes were somewhat lost on an American. I sensed a political undercurrent to what was happening with the family business and the way Emma and her lover were both viewed as outsiders. So perhaps an Italian audience would find more justification for the scenes that I felt were superfluous.

Visually, the film is stunning. The opening wintry images are dazzling. Then Guadagnino takes us through the seasons, beginning with the chilly winter and moving towards Emma's rebirth in the spring. Then there's the food porn: luscious meals served up with the utmost sensuality. Food is how Antonio first gets Emma's attention, and it's Emma's sharing of a recipe that reveals her infidelity to her son.

"I Am Love" is an art film that is fearless in its willingness to go to extremes and because of that it is likely to stir some laughter in anyone not willing to partake in its excesses. But its artiness has such passion that it is easy to let the film carry you away, but you have to be willing to succumb to its seduction.

"I Am Love" (rated R for sexuality and nudity, and in Russian and Italian with English subtitles) is in a sense a film in the tradition of the old school women's pictures of the 40s and 50s. But unlike those old Douglas Sirk melodramas where women were often trapped in limiting roles, "I Am Love" suggests that there is the possibility for liberty and freedom.

Here's our Film Club discussion.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Magnolia Pictures

Tilda Swinton and Alba Rohrwacher as a mother and daughter both discovering love in "I Am Love"

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (host): “Winter’s Bone” opens Friday at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas. We move on to a movie called “I Am Love.” As a wealthy aristocratic Milanese family celebrates the passing of the torch from father to son in the business world, another torch is being lit. The son’s wife, an impassive Russian beauty, is about to engage in an affair with a young chef. Among the layers of complication in this movie of the upper classes are desperate business troubles, the revelation of a sexual secret and lots of steamy recipes. The movie stars Tilda Swinton. And I understand that this film evolved from an ongoing conversation between the director and Tilda Swinton on the subject of love. Beth, what’s the back story here?

BETH ACCOMANDO (KPBS Film Critic): Well, apparently they’ve been talking about this or considering this for about 7 years. And Tilda Swinton has expressed this interest ever since she had made the film “Orlando” and these stories about transformation and kind of metamorphosis and it’s interesting, too, that “Orlando” is being re-released right now in theaters, the Sally Potter film. So it’s something that she’s been interested in and that she worked with the director to form the story, which really showcases her. And I – she’s one of my favorite actresses. I just find her so fascinating because she doesn’t – she’s never conventional and she always surprises you.

CAVANAUGH: Anders, describe the world of this film, particularly the Recchi family. Who’s at the center?

ANDERS WRIGHT (City Beat Film Critic): Well, I guess the center would be the grandfather who’s the sort of magnate of this industrial company. And, you know, things start off, it’s his birthday and, you know, he’s – he eventually is – has to decide who he’s going to pass his company down to. There’s his son, who’s married to Tilda Swinton, then he’s got a number of grandsons and granddaughter – and it is absolutely like beautiful, opulent wealth. These people live in wonderful homes. They’re cooked, you know, lovely meals. They have lots of help. But you, you know, they’re just sort of real people. That’s just sort of how – the way that they – the way they live. There’s nothing about them that’s necessarily particularly upper crust. They just happen to come from these gorgeous upbringings, basically.

CAVANAUGH: Scott, with this sumptuous surrounding, is this kind of like – and the family drama, is this reminiscent of an old-fashioned melodrama?

SCOTT MARKS (Emulsion Compulsion Film Critic): Well, first of all, all you people who write in saying I don’t like anything…


MARKS: …listen, listen, listen, listen, listen. This is a masterpiece. This is one – And it’s not even the best picture of the year. I think “Ondine” is the best thing I’ve seen so far this year. This is one of the most stylish films I’ve seen so far this year. The way these characters interact and the sense of history, film history, this guy has – The matriarch and the patriarch of the family are played by Gabriele Ferzetti and Marisa Berenson. And when I talked to the director, he said, I did that intentionally because I wanted to have the sense of cinematic royalty. And if you don’t know Gabriele Ferzetti, it’s – if you’ve seen “Once Upon A Time in the West,” he’s the guy on the crutches when Henry Fonda kicks the crutches out from under him. I mean, it’s one of the most stunning moments in the history of cinema. And Marisa Berenson, of course, was in Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon.” So he has the sense of film history and about 10 minutes into it, I’m saying, my God, this is Visconti’s “The Damned.” And then I’m watching more and it’s like this is Douglas Sirk. So, yes, this film is a grand melodrama, beautifully photographed. I mean, this thing – there is not a bad shot in this film. Tilda Swinton is probably the most fearless actress at work today. And they have a – they worked together on two other films prior to this, one called “The Protagonist,” which came out in the late nineties, and then he did a documentary about her called “Tilda Swinton: The Love Factory.” So they’ve been working together for quite some time and their relationship basically formed the basis of this movie.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Beth, what did you think of Tilda’s performance?

ACCOMANDO: Oh, it was – What can you say? She’s always magnificent.

CAVANAUGH: She’s always fabulous, yeah.




ACCOMANDO: Because, like Scott said, she is fearless, she’s not afraid to do anything, she – in this film, it was nice to see her kind of go through this transformation both visually and emotionally. I mean, she goes from this elegant, upper crust kind of matriarch with these beautiful clothes and her hair done up and then through the course of it, she cuts her hair, she be – you know, she ends up shedding everything of that wealth through the course of the film. But she’s always completely believable and she just – she’s fascinating onscreen.

MARKS: And she learned to speak Italian.

ACCOMANDO: And Russian.

MARKS: And she learned to speak Italian with a Russian accent.

WRIGHT: I know, yeah. Yeah.

MARKS: I mean, this is amazing. And I asked the director, I go, was it phonetically spelled out for her, like, you know, like Brando would do? And he said, no, she actually learned how to speak Italian for this role.

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Photo credit: Magnolia Pictures

Twinda Swinton and Flavio Parenti as mother and son in "I Am Love"

WRIGHT: You know, I think one of the things about it, too, is that as the film progresses, all of her children are supposed to be going through these huge transitions in their lives, and everyone looks to her to be sort of the rock that they can revolve around. And the fact is that she’s not. I mean, that’s sort of where the whole thing goes off in a different direction because she finds, as everything is changing around her, she finds herself changing, too.

MARKS: And she’s hopelessly pampered. I love in the beginning of the film, you see the husband helping her, putting on her jewelry. It’s just one little throwaway shot. And then later on when she’s with her lover who doesn’t have a lot of money, who doesn’t really like all the jewelry, you see him taking the jewelry off of her…

WRIGHT: Umm-hmm.

MARKS: …before they make love. So, again, here’s a film that tells its story through visuals…

ACCOMANDO: Well, there’s practically…


ACCOMANDO: …no dialogue actually. I mean, if you were to pare it down, there’s really not all…

WRIGHT: Yeah, it’s also – It is one of those – it’s a food movie, too.

ACCOMANDO: Food porn, yeah.

WRIGHT: Yeah, as I – When I was watching it I wrote down it’s like a slow movie for the slow food crowd.


WRIGHT: And when I say slow, I don’t mean dull.


WRIGHT: I just mean it doesn’t move quickly but that’s okay.

ACCOMANDO: Well, and but there’s that – there’s that – Talk about melodrama. There’s the moment where she eats the meal that her potential lover has just made.

WRIGHT: Oh, yeah.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Magnolia Pictures

Edoardo Gabbriellini and Tilda Swinton are drawn together by food in "I Am Love."

ACCOMANDO: And it’s in a restaurant and they serve her these prawns and suddenly like all the sounds around her fade out and it’s like a spotlight comes on her and everybody else in the room kind of goes dark and you just see close-ups of her eating this food and, I mean, the subjectivity of that sequence, I mean, it gets so much into what she’s going through and how she can filter out everything in the world and the sensuality of the food and it was just – you know, it was a beautiful sequence.

CAVANAUGH: In wrapping up this particular movie, Scott, tell – talk a little bit about how it looks.

MARKS: I mean, he captures all the seasons in this film. I mean, it opens up in – with snow and in the middle of winter, and then as it progresses, all of a sudden it’s summer, then spring and things brighten up. And he just knows how to compose shots. He knows when to move the camera. I mean, the Italians move the camera better than just about anybody. I mean, I was watching this and I was also reminded of some of Bertolucci’s great slow camera tracking shots in his movies. So I think it’s just – if you’re an Italian director, you get it by birth. You just know how to move the camera and how to compose a shot.

ACCOMANDO: Well, and the other thing that I think a lot of American audiences may not get and I didn’t get completely either was – I mean, there’s a lot of political subtext to it, too, with the north and the south because, I mean, part of the reason why she hooks up with this particular man as a lover is that, you know, both of them are kind of outcasts from, you know, the main – the mainstream of Italian society because he’s – I always forget which – He was from the south, I think, the lover? Anyway, but there’s this north, south conflict going on and, you know, she was an outsider. She came from Russia. So I think part of what’s going on here as well and plus with the textile company that the grandfather owns, I mean, there’s, I think, some political elements to the story that may be lost on some American audiences.

CAVANAUGH: Well, before we leave, I just want to shout out to somebody whose name I’m not going to be able to pronounce. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux is – was the man who actually shot “I Am Love.” “I Am Love” opens Friday at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas. [CORRECTION: The film opens July 2 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas.]

Companion viewing: "Orlando," "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover," "Like Water for Chocolate"

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