Though flattering, it is also more than a little unfair that I Am Love has been spoken of in relation to the work of Luchino Visconti, given that what is most remarkable about the film is how distinctly idiosyncratic the visual language used by director Luca Guadagnino is. DP Yorick Le Saux, who also lensed François Ozon’s Swimming Pool (2003), has an eye for grand compositions and creates a sometimes-stunning tableau of imagery, from the opening scenes of a wintry Milan, suddenly thrusting into taking in the exquisitely composed details of the opulent Recchi family household, and later out into the sun-drenched countryside, and the cosmopolitan bustle of Sanremo. Established is a clear dichotomy between the liberty of the exterior compared with the stifling rigidity of the interior; as if to underline this, in a later scene set inside a cathedral, a bird flaps around the inside of the domed roof, surrounded by beautiful decor, but trapped nevertheless.
Though ostensibly a family epic, the main focus of the film is in reality focused on one individual, Emma Recchi, a Russian expatriate trapped in a loveless marriage to the heir apparent of the family’s successful clothing factory. Her isolation and inner turmoil is not conveyed through dialogue but through small gestures: in one scene, nervous about a gift her daughter is going to give to the strict patriarch of the family, the camera falls on Emma unconsciously tightly winding the gift’s decorative ribbon around her fingers. Elsewhere, a pan focuses the frame on hands tightly drawing her curtains shut to the outside world, locking her in to this hermetically-sealed world of cold order.
The unemotive world of the Recchi household explains the film’s sudden lurch into colourful expressionism as Emma rediscovers her capacity for passion, first for the food which her son’s chef friend Antonio serves her, and then eventually for Antonio himself. Some scenes work better than others: her rapture on eating a prawn dish sees her spotlit as if she were alone onstage delivering a soliloquy perfectly capturing the solipsism of sensory delight; by contrast, the hazily-shot, soft focus bout of alfresco lovemaking the pair enjoy soon afterwards feels like the stuff of a cheesy erotic thriller.
The barebones of the story – unloved middle-aged wife learns to once again be consumed by desire – seems in an old-fashioned Douglas Sirk mold, and Guadagnino does nothing to match the edgy daring of, say, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Angst essen Seele auf (1974) or Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2002). But as a piece of visual cinema it is hugely accomplished, and a strange, sometimes counter-intuitive approach to scoring creates unsettling moments, sometimes even pulse-quickeningly suspenseful ones: a ‘chase’ through the streets of Sanremo suggests a gender-reversed version of a scene from Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), particularly with Emma’s striking Carlotta Valdes-like curl in her hair, and the final scenes brim with a surprisingly large degree of tension, some compensation for the film’s rather lacklustre lurch into tragedy in its final third. With this kind of ability, perhaps Guadagnino ought to turn to making thrillers?