Form and content are often viewed as two distinct ingredients that, when joined together, form a coherent work of art. In the lavishly stylized family drama “I Am Love,” however, direct Luca Guadagnino constantly pits form against content and vica versa. The story of a desperate housewife (Tilda Swinton) attempting to escape domestic misery, it depicts the events at hand with bold cinematic flourishes, resulting in a movie specifically attuned to the powers of the medium.
With a phenomenally engaging soundtrack set to sublime compositions of the Italian countryside and the bustling streets of Milan, “I Am Love” could succeed as a pure avant-garde tone poem. But the narrative comes together with Swinton’s fully realized performance (in which she speaks only in Italian, furthering the lore of her chameleon-like abilities) as Emma, initially a mere accessory as the wife of Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), the expected heir of his family’s lucrative textile business. At a lavish family gathering, however, aging pater familias Edoardo Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti) announces plans to leave the company to both his son Tacredi and grandson, Eduoardo Jr. (Flavio Parenti), an announcement that silences the room. Months later, in the wake of Eduoardo Sr.’s death, the two men clash over separate visions for the future of the company.
But the father-son disagreements fade to the background as Emma’s displacement takes center stage. A woman of Russian background adrift in an unhurried world of European luxury, she gradually becomes the victim of neglect. Guadagnino often frames Swinton’s worrisome expressions in telling close-ups that allow her growing disillusionment to evade the need for blatant explanations. Over time, Emma learns of her daughter’s lesbian tendencies and develops a secret
crush on Eduoardo Jr.’s buddy Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), twists described in the official plot synopsis of the movie’s press notes in the following literal terms: “Emma is starting to feel that her children have their own lives in which she no longer has a part. She struggles to take this no information on board.” But Guadagnino, also the screenwriter, supplies no tell-all monologue to impart that information. “I Am Love” thrives on subtext.
Instead, he turns up the elegance from an early point and never backs down. The opening credits are set against images of Milan blanketed in snow, with graceful title cards enhancing the mood. These frothy exteriors (shot by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, also the director of photography for Olivier Assayas’s upcoming terrorism epic “Carlos”) mask the discontent hiding within the affluent family’s internal problems; similarly, Swinton’s graceful performance juxtaposes her character’s attempts to remain composed and logical against an evident need to escape.
Once Guadagnino foregrounds Emma’s concerns, her subjectivity takes over. Flash cuts clue us into the undulation of her moods. Dining with her mother-in-law and her son’s fiancé, she virtually endures orgasmic sensations over the platter of prawns made by local chef Antonio, with whom she eventually instigates a clandestine affair. As both Antonio and Emma struggle to hide their passionate trysts from her son, “I Am Love” combines solemnity with histrionics: When the lovers passionately embrace amid the serenity of nature, it’s obviously too good to last.
Virtually every consequential scene in “I Am Love” flows along under the swift guidance of John Adams’s ceaselessly energetic soundtrack and Le Saux’s gripping visuals. At times, Guadagnino seems too distracted by the tools at his disposal, but such excitement generally serves the unspoken rhythm of the plot. Emma’s personal troubles are so tangential to the family dynasty that they come across as harmless flights of fancy, setting up the sudden impact she plays in a late-act tragedy.
When things turn grim with a devastating accident, “I Am Love” takes its biggest misstep with a trite dramatic confrontation. But the fallout of the event in question has unequivocal emotional weight, as the full force of Guadagnino’s stylistic ambition comes together. The final shots resonate with a combination of liberation and extreme melancholy, but they’re fundamentally gripping no matter how you see them. An orchestra has rarely swelled with such precision. If “I Am Love” at times pushes the medium too hard, for the most part Guadagnino pushes it just right.