Tilda do us part

I Am Love

Don’t speak. Just look.

Don’t speak. Just look.

Rated 3.0

Tilda Swinton is the reason most of us will want to see I Am Love, although the brazen swoon of that title, in combination with the movie’s extravagant Italianness, sells it pretty well, too.

But the essential question is what Swinton might do with such a combo. She is among the producers of Luca Guadagnino’s film, and as a developer of her own material has known what’s good for her at least since playing the sex-shifting 400-year-old nobleman in Sally Potter’s 1992 movie of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando.

Since then, the progress of Swinton’s career has seemed like a tricky epic unto itself, some obvious yet unanswerable riddle about how Narnia’s White Witch could possibly have emerged from the righteous, arty queerness of Derek Jarman’s cinematic glitter box. She’s like HD or 3-D: a new moviemaking technology, a purity of potential. And it has been fun wondering what the hotshot directors—Spike Jonze, the Coen brothers, David Fincher, Jim Jarmusch—can invent for her to do.

Less, apparently, than she can invent for herself. Such is the mixed blessing of this moment in film history that Swinton’s great talent has both elevated and reduced her to a redeemer of melodrama and navel-gazing experimentalism. In the case of I Am Love, it’s a little of both. But because it’s her, a little goes a long way. And because he’s worked with her twice before, on his 1999 feature debut, The Protagonists, and the 2002 short documentary, Tilda Swinton: The Love Factory, Guadagnino seems to be getting the handle on Swinton’s singular gifts in ways that other filmmakers haven’t.

Here he posits her as one Emma Recchi, a Russian nobody by birth, Italian aristocrat by marriage and accidental voluptuary by contrivance of plot, through which Guadagnino and his screenwriting team supply her with a luxuriant Lady Chatterley moment.

It takes a while. First we must have some narrative throat clearing and knuckle cracking and getting situated. We must have some time to admire Swinton’s facility with Russian-accented Italian, and then to realize that her greater fluency is nonverbal. The movie opens on a winter evening in Milan, with the rimy fashion capital as a perfect setting for textile tycoon and aging Recchi patriarch Edoardo (Gabriele Ferzetti) to gather his tribe and officially bequeath the empire. He wants control of the business to be split between scion Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), Emma’s husband, and their sensitive son Edo (Flavio Parenti)—a decision that will at first be met with gasps, but eventually seem to get washed away by a powerful tide of well-established politesse.

In fact, the more pressing questions of Recchi legacy, Guadagnino suggests, are as regards the women. Emma’s daughter Betta (Alba Rohrwacher) goes away to school in England and comes out as a lesbian, returning briefly to remind her mother what liberation may be had from true love and a dramatic haircut. Then Edo’s friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a talented chef, supplies Emma with a particularly decadent plate of prawns, and at once we sense ourselves following her past a point of no return.

Certainly she has gotten out of Milan, and into a verdant thaw. Guadagnino in turn unveils his full array of abstracting sensual textures: cinematographer Yorick Le Saux’s blissfully myopic focal lengths, the lively throb of composer John Adams’ score and the increasingly frame-filling form of Swinton, variously decorated with fabric and light.

It should be no surprise that we’re in for an operatic sort of tragedy here, complete with the wallop of a sudden final curtain drop. Once heated, all this sumptuous imagery—and for that matter, all this plot—often comes close to a ruinous boil. But guess who keeps stirring the pot at just the right moment?

Having recently played two faces of a foil for George Clooney in Michael Clayton and Burn After Reading; a dusky hinterland muse in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; a bottomed-out boozer in the Cassavetes-esque Julia; and style itself in The Limits of Control; Swinton makes short work of stuff like this. Without her, Guadagnino would not have a movie, but that’s reason enough to be glad he does.