It’s likely that this brilliant, atmospheric gem of a contemporary Italian film will polarize audiences as it has critics, but for those in the mood for lush settings, fine performances, and unapologetically sensual crustacean-eating experiences, I Am Love ought to be this summer’s art-house hit. Tilda Swinton is Emma Recchi, the Russian bride of an Italian garment-industry heir, and her palatial home in northern Italy ravishes the eye with its snow-covered stone exterior and exquisitely detailed décor. Swinton also gives us plenty to look at, as she sports a wardrobe featuring some of the most radiant colors seen on the screen in recent memory. “Forget about the woman in red,” the film seems to be saying, “It’s the one in orange you should be worried about.”
The story channels vintage D. H. Lawrence through the heady lifestyle of the international fashion aristocracy. When her son Edoardo Recchi Jr. (Flavio Parenti) befriends a young chef named Antonio Biscaglia (Edoardo Gabbriellini), Emma’s long emotional winter begins to melt under the heat of his heartfelt cooking. Although there are plenty of actual sex scenes in the film, the craziest and most memorable climaxes arrive when Emma is at the table, rather than in bed. Director Luca Guadagnino carves out a fascinating hybrid visual style in this film, crossing the elegance of a cinematic Architectural Digest with the hyperactive handheld camera of Run Lola Run. When Emma takes off after Antonio, following him to the resort of San Remo, where he plans to open a restaurant with her son, she becomes so agitated with anticipation that she nearly screams when he appears outside a shop window closer to her than she expects. While the film does not belong in the suspense category, there are still enough twists and turns to the plot to satisfy an audience out for surprise and adventure, and what Guadagnino has in store for his heroine cleverly enhances her aura of romantic abandon.
Among the many aesthetic dividends with which this gorgeous film is loaded, the wonderful soundtrack by composer John Adams stands out. Never resting for too long in one mode, the music keeps evolving along with the characters, creating a brighter, more intelligent sense of purpose than one is used to in the soundtrack to a love story. If you see one foreign film in the theater this summer, you would do well to make it I Am Love.