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Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love is first and foremost a sensuous experience. Set in Italy and shot like a dream, it's a proud melodrama cranked up to operatic levels with the help of John Adams' fevered score. Snowfall, sunshine, shrimp and sex are all filmed with unparalleled exquisiteness, as is lead Tilda Swinton in various dresses and several states of undress.
But is that enough? Love is only emotionally effective in quiet ways due primarily to Swinton's commendably restrained performance, and yet even those moments aren't quite enough to combat Guadagnino's glacial pace and stodgy sense of storytelling.
Swinton plays Emma, who married into the affluent Recchi family long ago. On the same day that her son, Edoardo, loses his first car race, and her daughter, Elisabetta, decides that her interests lie with photography more than drawing, the family patriarch concludes that control of his textile business will be split between two successors. (Because that always works out well).
Emma takes in all of this information at one fateful dinner, and afterward, change spreads quickly throughout the Recchi ranks: Everyone is forced to choose between the happiness that they owe their loved ones and that which they owe themselves. Elisabetta admits her preference for girls over guys, Edoardo tries to go into business with the chef and Emma decides that an extramarital affair with that same chef is just what she needs.
Yorick Le Saux's cinematography constantly flatters the timeless qualities of the Milanese architecture, the Sanremo countryside and Antonella Cannarozzi's elegant costume design. But we don't simply see telling discussions at the dinner table unfold; we get to see meals prepared and served, even before Antonio enters the picture. We get it: They have servants and they're rich. But every scene unfolds in equally slack terms, giving this would-be mood movie all the consistency of molasses. A funeral scene carries weight solely as an excuse for a costume change.
It's left to Swinton to introduce a much-needed human element and even her subtle strife can't elevate this in the same manner that Colin Firth's excellent work in A Single Man transported us beyond its similar aesthetic merits. Swinton's character came from Russia into a life she would've always wanted, and now given the prospect to pursue a life that she deserves, her desperation seeps through and proves more exciting than Adams' constantly overwrought musical contributions do. (I wonder, though, if a male lead unhappy in his well-off marriage and led to commit adultery would be just as easily forgiven as Emma is meant to be.)
Rare is the poor Tilda Swinton performance; in this case, though, that's what keeps I Am Love from becoming a glorified evening spent with a coffee table book, a playlist heavy on the symphonic stuff and some Olive Garden leftovers.
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