It is fitting that the dish that finally shatters things in the savory Italian drama of manners and mercantilism, “I Am Love,” is a fish stew flavored by secret ingredients and family tradition. For those are the themes that waft through filmmaker Luca Guadagnino’s untamed, and at times uncontrolled, melodrama with a delectable performance from Tilda Swinton as its centerpiece.
Swinton is one of the finest actresses working in contemporary cinema, but Guadagnino, who developed the project with her in mind, has created a film that literally luxuriates in her talents. This is their third collaboration, which began with 1999’s “The Protagonist,” the filmmaker’s first feature. It was there that they also began a conversation on the nature of love. His 2002 short interview- documentary, “Tilda Swinton: The Love Factory,” kept that dialogue going, with something of a final thesis coming in “I Am Love.”
Guadagnino, who wrote the film with a collective of screenwriters he drew on at different stages including Barbara Alberti, Ivan Cotroneo and Walter Fasano, sets the table very quickly, piling a lot of detail into the film’s opening moments.
The story begins in Milan on the eve of the 21st century with a Christmas feast at the Recchi family mansion. The textile business has created their wealth, with the failing patriarch using the occasion to hand the reins over to his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and, in an unsettling slight, to one of his grandchildren, Edo Jr. (Flavio Parenti), as well. Swinton’s Emma is wife and mother to the heirs apparent, a Russian beauty whom Tancredi married years ago and the steady hand that holds the generations together.
While issues of family hierarchy, class and the new world order of industry are whipped up in short order, the story’s essence is Emma facing an empty nest and realizing how suffocating her life has become. Enter the tantalizing young chef Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). He first reawakens her taste for life with his exquisite culinary creations, and then her passion. That he is opening a restaurant with her son adds another layer of complications.
But then there are many webs that entangle the members of this family: Beyond Emma’s growing appetites, there are the business’ desperate finances and daughter Elisabetta’s own journey of discovery, a fine turn by Alba Rohrwacher. The film, though, belongs to the unlikely lovers, Swinton and Gabbriellini, who proves a strong match for the actress.
The filmmaker has given a cool museum gallery quality to Emma’s aristocratic life that sits in contrast to the vibrant colors and summer heat of her world with Antonio. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux lingers equally on both major and minor chords — a bee buzzing above a flower getting as much attention as Antonio and Emma’s entwined limbs. Sometimes these effects are sumptuous, other times self-indulgent.
Something close to unconditional love for the talents of his star is visible in Guadagnino’s work. He is never in a hurry, giving Swinton time to move through the many emotional notes she’s been given. From despair to love to loss, she uses everything — from ice-blue eyes to those impossibly long limbs — to color each moment, restrained with Tancredi, gentle with her children, unbound with Antonio. These are shades we’ve seen through the years, from her nuanced gender-bending performance in 1993’s “Orlando” to her fierce compromised attorney in 2007’s " Michael Clayton,” the role that earned her an Oscar. Here they are all thrown into the pot, including the remarkable feat of a British actress speaking flawless Italian with just the right hint of a Russian accent.
Of course, there is a danger in loving too much. In the film, Emma pays dearly for her passion. For “I Am Love,” there is a cost, albeit a far smaller one. Let’s just say a little restraint in the cooking would have made for an even more satisfying meal.