As unrepentantly grandiose and ludicrous as its title, Luca Guadagnino's visually ravishing third feature suggests an epic that Visconti and Sirk might have made after they finished watching Vertigo and reading Madame Bovary while gorging themselves on aphrodisiacs. That it works so well — despite frequently risible dialogue ("Happy is a word that makes one sad") and a notion of feminism that carbon-dates around the time Kate Chopin published The Awakening — is a testament to the film's loony sincerity and seductive voluptuousness, anchored by the magnificence of Tilda Swinton.
Buttonholed by an eager Guadagnino 16 years ago and one of the film's co-producers, Swinton plays Emma Recchi, the unhappy, increasingly isolated Russian wife of Milanese industrialist Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and the mother of three adult children. She dutifully fulfills her haute-bourgeoise wifely duties: studying a dinner-party seating chart with Talmudic scrutiny; obeying her imperious mother-in-law (Visconti touchstone Marisa Berenson, perfectly cast); running errands in fantastic salmon-colored Jil Sander finery, her hair perfectly coifed. A tiny frisson registers when she meets Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), the chef friend of her son, Edo (Flavio Parenti). The unfulfilled matriarch thaws completely after she eats a plate of his prawns with ratatouille and sweet-and-sour sauce; clandestine visits to Sanremo follow, where Emma's chignon unravels and she and Antonio do it alfresco. Edo discovers their secret, something bad happens, and Emma frees herself from uxorial enslavement.
Guadagnino's film, which he cowrote with three others, earnestly attempts to overthrow Continental patriarchy. It feverishly pulls you in with its operatic sweep and its appeal to the primary senses — the bombastic John Adams score, the opulent Old-World interiors, Yorick Le Saux's lush cinematography, meal preparation and consumption as multiple orgasm. There's nothing especially novel about exploring the soul-crushing emptiness of marriage to a titan of industry. But I Am Love may be the first film in which the lonely heroine finds inspiration in her child announcing that she's a lesbian. Emma's daughter, Betta (Alba Rohrwacher), first seen with long tresses and making out with her boyfriend, finds lady love while at art school in London — shown as slurpy, stringy-spittled kisses — and tells Mom all about it: "It's not a passing thing, I'm sure." Betta's confession causes something to shift in Emma, her own carnal curiosity slowly rising to the surface; the mother-daughter twinning is further underscored by their newly shorn hair.
The signs and symbols of Emma's emancipation may be ridiculously ham-handed, but that blunt obviousness is counterbalanced by Swinton's delicate, deft performance. Learning not just Italian but how to speak the language with a Russian accent for her role, Swinton plays Emma as a woman further imprisoned by linguistic impasses. At Recchi family gatherings, she appears nearly aphasic: "When I moved to Milan, I stopped being Russian," Emma tells Antonio after some vigorous rutting. Swinton magically conveys two states of being — as both a spectral presence who has willed herself to simply not be, only appear, and as a person of voracious appetites — her physicality transforming depending on whether Emma is trapped at home, making small talk at a business dinner, or sniffing trees with Antonio.
For all its corny social studies, I Am Love never forgets the lust that drives its narrative. Swinton and Gabbriellini make an extremely foxy couple, her translucent flesh complemented by his dark hair and beard. Their assignations are all action, little talk; when Guadagnino focuses solely on the primal, the effect is spellbinding. Only the words get in the way.