One wants to throw rapturous, operatic hosannas on "I Am Love," and apologize for it at the same time. Why? Because the voluptuous passion it portrays isn't served up on toast; because it isn't one of those easily digestible emoticon-movies that are passed off as high romance. It is only out of a kind of languor, an emotional and visual adagio, that the crescendo of this rare Italian drama can be reached, and the presumption is that we have no patience. We should. As "I Am Love" so soundly proves, the payoff is well worth it.
Suggesting a "Garden of the Finzi-Continis" without the incipient Holocaust, or perhaps the early, corruption-divining work of Bernardo Bertolucci, "I Am Love" is a portrait of a family - the textile manufacturing Recchis - and their aloof, obsessive in-law Emma (played by that elegant/ androgynous, flame-haired Scottish sea nymph Tilda Swinton). A creation of the camera and music as surely as she is springs from the screenplay and Swinton's performance. Emma is the wife of the eldest Recchi heir, Tancredi, and profoundly alone: Russian by birth, Italian by marriage, adrift as Ishmael, she meets Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) and spontaneously combusts.
A culinary genius and the would-be restaurant partner of Emma's son Edoardo (Flavio Parenti), Antonio is a plausible catalyst for Emma's eruption. But as the object of this kind of hallucinatory desire, he's elevated to erotic deity. One hesitates to say that Swinton is the only actress who could successfully inhabit both the cool remove and molten sensuality that guide Emma through her sex dance with Antonio, but it's hard to envision anyone in her place.
Director Luca Guadagnino uses Swinton's often startling looks, as well as her gift for alchemizing conflicting emotions, to create a film/performance of predictable tragedy and not so foreseeable liberation and ecstasy. It takes some time getting to where they take us, but the results are like a dish that Antonio creates early in the film, eggplant infused with flower essence: earthy, perfumed with strangeness and thoroughly unexpected.