There are many deservedly celebrated films set in Milan, the city where I was born and raised: Vittorio De Sica, Miracolo a Milano (1951), Michelangelo Antonioni, La Notte (1961), Ermanno Olmi, Il Posto (1961), Lucchino Visconti, Rocco e i suoi fratelli (1960), Carlo Lizzani, La vita agra (1964), to name some.
Luca Guadagnino’s expansive family epic, I Am Love (Io sono l’Amore, 2009), must be added to this list.
Beautifully shot in Milan, this film has glamour, passion, opulent interiors, a magnificent performance by Tilda Swinton (speaking Italian with a Russian accent) and lots of mouthwatering food.
The film begins with an aerial view of the severe and commanding Stazione Centrale in Milan and pans over snow covered rooftops, streets and parks; the city is enveloped in its characteristic wintry mist. Slowly we are led into the sumptuous, though somewhat cavernous mansion of the Recchi family, hidden within a secluded garden and behind a wall of century old trees.
The opening of the film establishes the prominence of the Recchi dynasty. Cushioned by great wealth and style, well educated, the Recchis occupy their place of privilege effortlessly.
Inside, the mansion is bustling with activity. Emma (Swinton) and a score of house staff are getting the house ready for a birthday celebration. The elderly, formidable patriarch of the family, Edoardo Recchi Sr., an industrialist and the founder of a colossally profitable textile empire, is celebrating his birthday and the clan is going to gather to pay homage.
Emma is the beautiful and stylish wife of Tancredi, Edoardo’s son and heir apparent. She is from Russia and though seemingly assimilated into the moneyed Milanese upper crust, we often see her marooned in this world rather than fully engaged in it. Her accented Italian, her asides in Russian to her son, as if using a secret code, are reminders that she is an outsider and will perhaps never truly be a member of the Recchi clan.
The guests arrive and gather at the dinner table: Edoardo Sr. sits at the head of the table, next to him his eerily flawless, distant and distinctly un-cheerful wife (Allegra!), their son Tancredi, and Tancredi and Emma’s three grown children, Edoardo or Edo, Gianluca and Elisabetta, or Betta; there is also Eva Ugolini, who has come as Edo’s date.
This is no ordinary birthday dinner. A small gesture by Betta, the family artist, skillfully anticipates the momentous changes that are about to take place and creates a distinct sense of unease within the family gathering. Tradition has it that Betta will present the old patriarch with a new drawing. This year instead she gives him a framed photograph, because this is the art form that interests her more these days. Novelty greatly displeases the old man.
A little later, the patriarch makes an unexpected announcement: he will leave the Recchi business in the hands of his son and of his grandson, because, he claims: “It will take two men to replace me.”
From this instant, disorder is unleashed.
On this cold night a stranger appears at the door. It is a young chef named Antonio who has defeated Edo in some kind of race earlier that day and who is going into the restaurant business with him. He has come with a cake; so exceptional that Edo calls his mother over to meet him. There is an invisible, but intense glimmer of attraction between Antonio and Emma. Emma tastes Antonio’s food; she falls for its creator; the two become lovers.
Clandestine visits to San Remo and to Antonio’s vegetable garden follow. A story that began in the snow, in muted hues, within the confines of the family gloomy compound where the Recchis have displaced their emotional lives for the sake of maintaining their wealth, moves into the glowing sunshine of the Riviera, with its new pallet of colors and warmth that mirror the movie’s emotional trajectory.
The lonely protagonist, aptly named after Flaubert’s forlorn heroine, Emma Bovary, finds inspiration as she fervently sympathizes and identifies in her child’s liberation: Betta has fallen in love with a woman while at art school in London. But happiness in short lived for Emma: her love affair with Antonio is discovered; things fall apart.
Emma’s life changing journey takes shape against the backdrop of a changing social world. The textile industry is becoming globalized, and Emma’s husband and son do not see eye to eye as to how they should progress: one wants to sell out to international investors, the other wants to keep the business in the family.
Watching Guadagnino’s film I could not help but think about Antonioni’s portrayal of Italy’s wealthy upper crust during the era of the so called “economic miracle” in films such as La Notte, also set in Milan, and about the psychological stagnancy of its protagonists.
It may also be impossible to see this film without being reminded of Visconti’s portrayal of another family, a working class immigrant family living on the fringes of the “economic miracle,” a family brought to ruin by lust in an ominous Milan in Rocco and His Brothers. The name Tancredi is also a blatant allusion to Visconti’s The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), yet another saga about an Italian dynasty, about matters of succession, and about the way in which love and lust can breach the walls of class (in The Leopard, Alain Delon pays Salina’s nephew, Tancredi).
I could not help but be enthralled by Emma’s clothes and highly stylized hairdo. There is nothing ostentatious about her wardrobe or hair. Rather, she is tasteful and impeccably put together. Her outward appearance is a kind of armor: perfect, too perfect, in fact.
Her chignon, which unravels with the unfolding of her affair with Antonio, distinctly reminded me of Kim Novak’s chignon in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. A chignon also styled in a meticulous spiral, a hairdo that loses its studied precision as our first clue that perhaps the character sporting it isn’t quite what she seems.
Spiraling, out of control, the off-putting feeling of vertigo that is a key motif in Hitchcock’s film, the famous spiral appears in the promotional poster, recurs a vertiginous aural spiral of Bernard Herrmann’s score. A pulsating score by John Adams also punctuates Emma’s illicit romance, her life spiraling out of control. And as Emma tumbles from grace she ends up free but a rain-soaked, disheveled figure standing in an empty church.
Io sono l’amore. Un esercizio per praticare l’italiano.