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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Film Review | I Am Love

That's Amore
by Thomas Delapa

When people talk about our so-called postmodern era, one presumption is that creative artists have somehow absorbed the modernist triumphs and now borrow from them in all sorts of self-conscious ways that range from clever pastiche to flagrant piracy. That may have been true in the heady sixties and seventies, but the creative arts today seem marked by a blissful, almost smug ignorance of the past, as if the works and accomplishments of modernism were, at best, ancient history. Not only do today’s artists want to drive around in fast modernist wheels; they also think they’ve invented them.

Originally written as a vehicle for the ethereal British actress Tilda Swinton, I Am Love is this year’s model in a long feminist line stretching back to Ibsen's A Doll’s House, with a racy detour to D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Director and writer Luca Guadagnino’s luscious Italian import is a sensualist’s delight, a feast for the eyes, but you’ll have to overlook the warmed-over love story.

Instead of a doll's house for his trapped heroine, Guadagnino places her in an opulent Milan villa fit for a queen. It’s Christmastime in the city, and the rich and powerful Recchi family is celebrating the retirement of its patriarch (Gabriele Ferzetti). Outside it’s forlornly gray, but inside Guadagnino and his gifted French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux give the Recchi mansion all the shimmering trimmings. This is a portrait of the yeasty Italian good life and la bella figura, and Guadagnino lets us drink it all in, from the elegant family to the silver soup tureen and glowing dinner table.

Framed by Le Saux’s fluid, darting camera, the film’s tactile pleasures are indeed a movable feast, shot in vibrant earth tones that evoke a verdant paradise that would turn Gauguin green with envy. Yet in this urban Eden lurks original sin, or at least the makings of one. The Russian-born Emma (Swinton) looks the dutiful wife and mother, but those still waters roil with pent-up Latin passion.

In a summer of sticky bubblegum movies like Eclipse, Guadagnino’s film arrives in theaters like a rapturous valentine, tantalizing audiences with vibrant images and driven by an urgent, impulsive modernist score by American John Adams, composer of Nixon In China. In the city of La Scala, I Am Love soars to chic film opera at its high notes.

But before anyone starts singing Guadagnino’s praises, it’s also painfully apparent that he falls madly in love with his own images, even when they’re florid and stale. He sells his heroine short, sending her on a hackneyed sexual journey into the swarthy arms of Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a budding gourmet chef and friend of her beloved son Edo (Flavio Parenti). When Emma first tastes Antonio’s succulent sautéed prawns, she’s hooked. Emma’s colorless husband (Pippo Delbono) is almost entirely out of the picture, no more a character than the soup tureen.

After saucy international hits like the Oscar-winning Tom Jones and Mexico’s Like Water for Chocolate, the equation of food and sex by now has been served up to excess in the movies, yet Guadagnino gives us yet another helping, gilding the lily with a long kitschy scene of Emma and Antonio trysting in the nude among an unadulterated natural world of wildflowers and honeybees.

Pass the treacle, please.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 7/6/10

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