Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I Am Love. (2010) Luca Guadagnino

I Am Love left me stunned and glued to the screen. From its opening, over-sized and larger than life title sequences, reminiscent of classic monochrome Italian film, to its final, pulsating, fanfare conclusion --
it is so deeply thought through, so well thought out!, but never to the point of over-intellectualizing. Superb, raw acting punctuates the deep thinking going on, bringing warmth to the thinking process like a beating heart to the brain. This is one of those rare moments in cinema where all the parts and people flow seamlessly together, a unified whole creating a stylish work of art that is suited for the big screen.

And check out the color scheme in the poster above. You can read so much into it, it is the perfect introduction to the film.

Tilda Swinton plays Russain immigrant Emma now living in Italy with the rich Recchi family, in a mansion all their own, somewhat trapped by their wealth. The family keeps her at a friendly distance; her husband treats her like a propped-up trophy. As long as she doesn't ruffle any feathers, she will always be provided for. She won't lack a material possession.

She's as aloof in the family as she is from her Russian roots. At one point she admits she can't remember her Russian name.

When her son introduces her to Antonio the chef, a much younger man who shares her passion for a delectable dish, the attraction is immediate and fierce. She represses it at first -- she knows these thoughts lead nowhere good. In an opportunity to cook for her, his meal of prawns breaks through before he can, and suddenly she's willing to risk the mansion, the trips, the cars, the clothes. She'll risk everything to chase after that thing that eludes her: passion.

Two tragedies directly result from this risky chase. The first, an accident she never would have dreamed, a thing so horrible that it throws her completely off, into mourning and grieving beyond help. The first tragedy prompts her to spur a second tragedy to birth. In the film's final, devastating scene we can't be certain how her choice will affect her -- or for that matter, how it will affect her husband, her lover, her grown-up children. But I Am Love is less about narrative or choices or consequences, and more about expression -- perhaps expressionism -- in the here and now of the Recchi clan.

Consider a scene in the middle with Emma and Antonio making love. Close, tight shots of entwined skin in sunlight exaggerate connectedness and not necessarily sexuality, connecting two lost souls that have strayed together. While at many points I Am Love seems to borrow from Hitchcock and Vertigo, the sex more resonates with a recent Claire Denis film, Vendredi soir. The way Denis captured that Friday Night tryst is visually and thematically similar to Guadagnino's motion capture of Emma and Antonio outdoors: the two, now one in flesh, pressed passionately against and even inside one another, and the arousal and need that connect them (though they, and we, know they cannot be together) is caught so closely, lensing from inches, skin that expresses desire over release, understanding over biological urge. Soul-gazing is how the viewer joins in with this union. It is sensual but not overtly sexual -- not objectifying or gratuitous.

The motion in that scene is important too, because Emma and the camera have already established a spatial, physical relationship that constantly reflects and reacts to her emotional state of the moment. There are many types of cinematography in I Am Love, but three caught my eye in relation to Swinton's character -- three styles that took my breath away upon initially seeing this in the theatre.

The first I will simply call as I see it. It is cubism. It is the camera bringing static shots that are always edged off in a square or rectangle. These shots are almost always used in the Recchi household. In this cold, atmosphere of somewhat distant family members, the characters are caught in a cubist landscape. Squares and rectangles from walls and doorways form angles that hold them in. A spatial distance is created that imitates the distance in the business-like clan. At the front doorstep and stairs leading up to the entrance, at the dinner table, with the wine cups and candles and dinner plates, with people divided exactly in half around a large oval table -- the edges are a boundary holding the people inside. Perhaps "held inside" like Swinton's character, feeling trapped for a number of years -- the emotional state is the visual reflection, and vice versa.

The edges form angles that stand for entrapment. The camera even lingers on several frames displaying photos of family members.

Almost immediately when Swinton/Emma is away from the stuffy clan and walking the city streets, everything goes from that cubist/entrapment/held-in approach to the second approach -- a circular, more rounded approach, which is clear of any straight edge and feels more liberated. She's free. Even the city's architecture is less restrained than the confines of the Recchi exterior. In this rounded part of the story Emma finds a CD which represents alternative living, how circular life can be outside of the edges. Emma's hair is zoomed in on in a spiral on the back of her head. These shots and props represent escapist delight, freedom from the confines of the edged Recchis.

Very soon, a third kind of cinematography emerges. It is alive, it is moving and using wonderful tracking shots to bring kinetic energy to the story. Everything in the lens follows Emma in love, sometimes whipping around in a dash. These moments of motion don't let up until the lovers finally meet, and then -- BAM! Things slow down quite a bit. We're in that moment like Vendredi soir, captured in these close, tight shots with light all over the lovers' skin. The moment slows down to a longing lull because it is the greatest "here and now" part of the story.

After the love making scenes we really begin to move into hyper speed, but something horrible needs to happen to rip all these emotions from both the character and the camera. As Emma begins to pull away, she has to go back to those cold, dead, angles that have held her in, and break free. She has to return to the house --
she has to break through some walls and windows. They are the walls and windows of herself, the house, and the relational walls and windows that she's been fading in for too long.

Moralists will hate the ending of this film. I can't say that I disagree, however, I'll always disagree with a moralist first and give art the benefit of the doubt.

This is a rare film, a film lover's delight, with wonderful acting, lensing and music that builds to a huge, emancipating, colossal climax, and what has finally happened is as honorable as it is terrifying. Swinton brings it in I Am Love. She is full-force and needs to be nominated for an Oscar, whether the film is in Italian or not.

But she doesn't bring an easy answer when everything is said and done. It's like hard times in real life, but rendered in such a lovely, touching way.

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