There is a scene in I Am Love in which the central character (Tilda Swinton) delicately eats a plate of food made by the man who will become her lover. As she savours each bite, the audio environment becomes muted, the lighting scheme alters its tone and every minute expression, feeling and sensation is captured in the changing visual characteristics of the scene. It is this mode of sensory filmmaking that runs throughout Luca Guadagnino’s exquisitely directed film, which involved an 11-year development period in which he and Swinton fleshed out every facet of the film.
I was very much influenced by the revolutionary cinematography that came out during the new waves in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The cinematography came from new Hollywood, such as Roger Deakins, Gordon Willis, etc. A little bit after I started making movies in the late ’90s, I became interested in the idea that you could control and manipulate perspective and save your ass as a cinematographer or director. All the movies these days just look the same, as they all use, more or less, high contrast and different uses of color than the Technicolor era. They’re also strongly influenced by advertisements.
– Luca Guadagnino
Set in contemporary Milan, I Am Love focuses on a wife and mother (Swinton) at the centre of a large aristocratic family. A native Russian who has adopted the Italian way of life, her life appears to be perfect; however, ripples of doubt begin to form after she meets her son’s (Flavio Perenti) new business partner (Edoardo Gabbriellini). They later start a secret affair that affects the lives of everyone around them. The film is about love, lust, family and tradition’ however, it is also a model of rich and elaborate filmmaking.
On the surface, the plot sounds quite melodramatic and Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography itself adopts a sumptuously dramatic style in keeping with films of the Italian modernist period. However, the clandestine affair is treated with a quiet elegance. Every frame exudes sensuality, highlighting the small details that play a part in seduction. For example, one of the few love scenes that is featured in the film is set in the woods, and the camera traces not only the naked bodies of the lovers, but also the flora surrounding them. This is not merely an aesthetic device, but a symbolic gesture that both fragments and complements the action. The picture-perfect compositions could easily be accused of being unnecessarily visually extravagant, but every shot serves a purpose and further establishes the boundaries of the characters’ subjective responses to both their internal and external realms.
From the opening credits of I Am Love I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a film that could have been made a number of years ago. There is a classicism, grace and poise to this film that sets it apart from others made recently. Although it focuses on characters who are immersed in a world that is steeped in specific cultural mores, this tradition spills out into the opulent camera movements and rousing score. I think Antonioni would be impressed.