Is it possible to be addicted to a movie? I've watched I Am Love by Luca Guadagnino three times, once in a theater, twice on a VCR, and I can feel an urge coming on for a fourth fix. Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton), a Milanese matron from the mega-rich Recchi family, becomes involved with her grown son's best friend, a chef. A commoner, this guy -- which brings to mind the gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley's Lover and Julien Sorel in Stendhal's The Red and the Black. The damage sustained by the Recchi family and business also references Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. The film's melodramatic tone, with love presented as an absolute, a religion or calling that must be honored, even as it wrecks lives, suggests director Douglas Sirk, along with opera giants Verdi and Puccini.
It scarcely matters whether you factor in these homages, since this rapturously beautiful film, a high point of the 2009 Toronto Film Festival, works simply as superb cinematic storytelling. It opens with monochromatic images of a wintry Milan, sorrowful, snow-encrusted sculptures which may be mortuary figures foreshadowing a tragic denouement. On the soundtrack is the urgent, driving score of John Adams, arguably America's greatest living composer. So magical and unexpected is the opening sequence, you sense you're in the hands of a master.
Cut to the burnished, art-filled interiors of the Recchi palazzo, where the family has gathered for the birthday of the ailing patriarch, in the company of his snobbish wife (Marisa Berenson, perfecto). Over an elegant dinner, the old man passes the direction of the business to Emma's husband and her son Edouardo. Guadagnino deftly captures the dynamics of the family: Emma's complete submersion in its rituals; her close bond with her son Edouardo for whom she's prepared her special soup, learned in her native Russia; the group's sense of entitlement and invulnerability.
But change is in the air. Enter Antonio, the chef, who has brought a specially prepared cake for his friend Edouardo. Emma will soon learn that her daughter Betta is gay. And she falls in love -- not, initially, with Antonio; rather she goes into a rapturous trance over the prawns he's prepared for her in his family's restaurant -- "prawnography," Tilda Swinton has called the scene. Food, in Guadgnino's vision, is not just chow -- it's nourishment on all levels, epiphany, art.
Spurred on in part by her daughter's coming out, Emma engineers a "chance" encounter with Antonio in San Remo. With its semi-stalking and feints, the sequence is thrilling, pure Hitchcock. Emma accompanies Antonio to a mountainside retreat where he hopes to open a restaurant. A few critics have mocked the love making scenes, with the camera cutting from flesh to shots of trembling flowers and the like -- yet there comes a tipping point in a movie where you're so hooked the director could fire off three cannons and you wouldn't object.
Over-the-top romantic, this triumph of Euroart also gestures at social realism. The Recchi business enterprise, it becomes clear, thrived during the Fascist era by turning a blind eye, and now it's about to go global, throwing loyal employees out of work. Especially intriguing is the film's sexuality, which is fluid and polymorphous. There's more than an Oedipal tinge to Antonio and Emma's love -- at moments the great Tilda looks exactly her age (49). Thickening the stew, Emma's son, who has a feminine delicacy, may himself be in love with Antonio. And what exquisite lensing; after getting the shocking news about her daughter Emma perches high among the filigreed stone of the Duomo to regroup; every camera angle is revelatory, without being inapt. Skimpy on talk, I Am Love's visuals stand in for language. A trapped pigeon beating its wings against the dome of a funeral chapel speaks for Emma's heart. Wisely, Guadagnino gives the last word to the language of music and John Adams's crashing operatic score.
Some weeks back I had the privilege of discussing I Am Love with Luca Guadagnino in the offices of Magnolia, the film's distributor.
Erica Abeel: What's the meaning of the title, I Am Love?
Luca Guadagnino: I wrote my story, which came to me in an afternoon, after a lot of thinking about other movies and influences. I thought of the beautiful movie Philadelphia -- Jonathan Demme is one of my heroes -- and in that movie Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks have that glorious opera moment -- "
EA: Which also appears in your film when Emma and her husband are watching TV.
LG: Yes. And you see Tom Hanks lip synching the worlds from the opera "Andrea Chenier." And Hanks is quoting the singer, when he says "I am love."
EA: Could you talk about the influence of Douglas Sirk on your film?
LG: There's a great lesson to be learned from Sirk. I've studied a lot this great cinema of the 50's and 60's. We tried to figure out what these great revolutionary artists would do today, who with their movies were pushing very hard the envelope of their times.
EA: But why go backwards?
LG: To go forward. The present is a very sad moment for cinema. If you want to see great cinema and be compelled and excited and shaken up, you have to go back to the roots.
EA: What's sad about today?
LG: It's televisual. Super talky, about closeups of people talking. It's about fake drama versus real emotions. I'm talking about "industrial cinema." As it happens, that was the cinema that Sirk was doing: commercial movies, not art movies.
EA: In many ways I Am Love also plays like an opera.
LG: I like opera because it expresses universal emotions in a grand way. And that's what I wanted to achieve. Of course the danger is to become ridiculous. [Laughs] I hope we didn't fall into that too many times.
EA: I was struck by a particular way you framed your shots. You often use the form of an inverted triangle.
LG: I love this!
EA: The scene funnels toward a point. Do you know what I'm talking about? [I draw a picture]
LG: I completely agree with you. It's the great lesson I learned from Kubrick. He was always analyzing the big canvas and trying to find the point in the big canvas that's the only relevant point. Which is not what they do today, since the language of cinema became sold to the market of television, where they do a master of two people, then do the closeups. A director should always know where the camera should be put and why.
EA: What governed the way you photographed Milan, which seems almost a character?
LG: When you make a movie you have to try to depict how the space is a reflection of a character's inside world; or how the outside world affects his inner spirituality.
EA: In discussing the film, Tilda Swinton has said "change, overcoming the idea of oneself as created by society has been one of my main interests since Orlando." Do you view I Am Love the same way?
LG: I try to avoid explaining my movies, but I'd say yes.
EA: In many ways I Am Love works age-old themes. How did you refresh them?
LG: I feel that there's a great battle to be fought: that of the patriarch and language of the father, and the completely different language of the female. The male wants to be a patriarch; the mystery and beauty and power of the women is another language that is very strong.
EA: Was Emma's son Edouardo in love with Antonio?
LG: I believe that if someone can claim the title for himself, it's Antonio. He can say, I am love. He has the capacity to be truthful to himself and to nurture the spirituality of the others through his food. So Edouardo can't help but fall into loving this very strong soul that is Antonio. Of course since Edouardo's class is ruled by denial, he will never name the thing. He will never be able to see that the passion he has for this boy can be labeled love. But yes, he does fall in love with him. Men love to love men. It's easier. The mystery of women is too complex. Being buddies is about trying to simplify things and not have to deal with the otherness of women.
EA: Food has a very particular meaning in this film.
LG: I like to cook, I like great restaurants. There is a great deal of knowledge when you go to a great table. A master chef is able to nurture you. Food is the language of love, the go-between. In the scene of Emma and the prawns, she's unconsciously falling into the emotional world, the artistic world, the erotic world of that chef.