Monday, July 19, 2010

Grand Gestures

For a movie constructed from so many things that I love, I Am Love (2009, directed by Luca Guadagnino) sure left me feeling disappointed at the end. I mean, it's chock full of architecture and food and cinephilia and Tilda Swinton, and yet I still found myself thinking, "Is that it?" as the credits rolled. The entire gist of the movie, save for one key plot point, is there in the trailer: plot, visuals, music, everything. What you see in the trailer is a conflation of Visconti and Sirk, with a hint of Hitchcock and pumped full of steroids. The movie itself calls to mind Ambrose Bierce's definition of a novel as "a short story, padded."

The story is familiar enough to anyone who has seen Sirk's All that Heaven Allows (substitute a lower class chef for Rock Hudson's handyman), though this movie gives it a different ending. The visual metaphors the movie employs--empty rooms of the affluent are dominant, though the seasons are important, too--are pure Sirk in a slightly different key. That's where Visconti comes in, because this is also a movie about a wealthy family coming to grips with changing times. The same visual metaphors apply, with the furnishings of affluence providing a glimpse of a past that's slipping away. The comparison with The Leopard is well nigh inescapable.

At the center of all of this is Swinton in fine form, playing the Russian bride of a Milanese textile merchant. In marrying into his family, she abandons her identity. Her husband even provides her with a new name. Swinton's character, it should be noted, shares a name with Flaubert's Madame Bovary: Emma. She seems to have no connection to her husband, but she loves her children. One of her children is questioning the direction of the family business in a globalized world. The other is in the process of coming out as a lesbian. Her son's friend is a chef who catches her eye, first with food, then with his looks. Tragedy ensues.

The movie is on its firmest ground when it focuses on Swinton, watching her behavior. It's the small scenes that play the best: when she finds a letter from her daughter in which she discusses falling for another woman, when she has the dialogue of an American businessman translated for her (a very meta moment, given that the actress is one of the most articulate of British actresses), when she's lost in the taste of food. That she's a Russian in Italy makes her a stranger in a strange land, and it amplifies her isolation and ennui. One wishes that there was more of this sort of thing. A lot more. For the most part, the plot is an excuse for the form and they don't really support one another. Or, rather, the form dominates.

This is a film of seasons. The opening movement is set in the winter, and in the midst of cold, modernist architecture. The second movement is set in the spring and the ornate architecture of the baroque period. The third movement is set in the summer, in the low, picturesque villages of the countryside. Fall is rainy, and the architecture is sepulchral. Through it all is an emphasis on food. The moods of the picture are conveyed by food, as is a key plot point at the end of the movie that precipitates the movie's tragedy. As a visual object, I Am Love is excellent, but perhaps a bit too arch with it its symbols. Still, the film does come to vivid life, especially in the erotic sections where Swinton proves to be a very unself-conscious actress. Her love scenes are surprisingly uninhibited. I don't know that I can imagine another actress of her stature in these scenes, but she inhabits them effortlessly. The movie overplays this, though, by using the natural world (particularly insects on flowers) the way it uses architecture, mostly as a bludgeon.

I mean, I'm all for the grand gesture. I'm all for taking a swing at the fence. I'm not going to fault the film for its ambitions. Hell, I wish more movies took these kinds of chances. I wish I liked this film more. But I don't.

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