I am love (2009), or lo sono l’amore, Italian director and writer Luca Guadagnino’s most recent film, is certainly a treat for the senses. Guadagnino tells the story of the fictional Recchi family, whose lives are steeped in wealth and austere decadence. In true Italian fashion, the film beautifully plods along, slowly heating up with explicit sex scenes and alternative sexual identities, finally exploding into a dramatic finale. Tilda Swinton plays dual role of lead actress and—according to Swinton in an article in Timeout London—producer “with a capital P.” In the same article, author Dave Calhoun discusses Guadagnino and Swinton’s affinity for drama: “Their aim is to celebrate a cinema based on style and form rather than story and dialogue, one unafraid of being tagged melodramatic or operatic – too often dirty words in the critical lexicon.” Unfortunately, I am one of those who judged the film for its melodramatic tendencies. Ironically, I became more engaged with the drama beyond the fiction—that of Tilda Swinton’s rumored ménage à trois. Nevertheless, the film still manages to please with its serene beauty.
Swinton plays the Russian wife, Emma Recchi, of Tancredi Recchi (Pippo Delbono), Italian heir to the lucrative family business and fortune. A superficial reading of Swinton’s character would peg her as mere trophy wife, performing the duties of an Italian aristocrat with impassive grace. Yet as her story unfolds, one realizes that her marriage has merely fallen victim to the passionless rhythms of quotidian life. She has become too comfortable, stuck in the cadence of extravagant ennui. Guadagnino cleverly gives us glimpses of Emma’s potential for passion, albeit in the eyes of her daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) as she follows her desire to be with women, or within the determination of son Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) to marry for love and not family or fortune. Perhaps encouraged by her fervid children, Emma soon pursues an affair with a young lover who unlocks her recently dormant fervor for life.
Meanwhile, rumors of Swinton’s real life ménage à trois have speckled the tabloids. In a February 2008 article in British tabloid The Daily Mail, Alison Boshoff asserted that Swinton and her husband, John Byrne, shared their home and family with Swinton’s new young lover, Sandro Kopp. The Daily Mail finally quelled the gossip in August 2009, when Swinton’s ex-partner, Byrne, publicly denied any such arrangement. Still, the rippling rumors had turned into quite a wave. It even inspired Katie Roiphe from Harper’s Bazaar to write an article entitled, "Liberated in Love: Can Open Marriage Work," in which she questions: “How can we balance the comfort and stability of marriage with the desire for novelty and freshness? How does one resolve the yearning for freedom with the need for a settled life?”
Ironically, these very questions that had been orbiting Swinton in her personal life eventually make an appearance in I am love. Yet, according to Swinton and Guadagnino, the purpose of the film was that of style, not of content. While the film touches on the sticky details of marriage gone sour, the thrust of the film is that of love itself. I am love celebrates love in its pure emotional state and, in turn, harnesses the way through which love affects all of our senses. The film itself is the artistic expression of the multisensory entity that is love—from its impeccable production design, to the evocative music score by American composer John Adams, to its theme of gastronomical reverence.
While I can fully appreciate the film for its stylistic achievements, I am not fully satisfied by its veneration of a naïve, happily-ever-after brand of love. We are spoon-fed wild expectations as to how love will eventually manifest into ultimate happiness, as if we ourselves are not responsible for our own development or self-fulfillment. Movies such as I am love make us hope that there is someone who will complete us, instead of encouraging personal growth within the framework of a real relationship. I’d rather spend my time reading David Schnarch, or watching Ingmar Bergman films, both of whom present more critical and, in turn, valuable, assessments of long-term relationships. Unfortunately, melodramatic movies such as I am love only further conflate our idea of love, bringing us back into a fantasy world where affairs trump years of marriage, lasting into the sunset and making us happily ever after. In real life, Emma Recchi’s illicit relationship clearly would have been fun and maybe would have jolted her awake from a sleepy marriage, but it most likely would not have lasted, and it certainly would not have been her path to ultimate happiness.
That said, I am love is undeniably beautiful, and, if nothing else, undoubtedly a treat for the senses. Yet, I cannot bring myself to fully recommend the film on this basis alone. While I have always considered myself a romantic, in matters of the heart, I’d rather take the brutal truth sans artificial sweeteners.