“Romance” may have derived from the vulgar Latin, but the romance in the Italian I Am Love is pure, upper-crust elegance. From the stunning ensembles that everybody wears to the gorgeous Milan and San Remo homes, villas, and vistas in which the movie takes place, and the luscious food prepared and served to its central wealthy family, Love looks and feels like an Italian Vogue fashion spread come to sweeping, melodramatic life. That its central story revolves around two sexual awakenings only lends it the robust splash of the operatic. And yes, if you simmered everything down here, all that would be left is classic crass soap opera — but how it’s prepared makes all the difference. Love takes place in a movie world where everything looks and sounds — and, you imagine, smells and feels and tastes — better than wherever you happen to be.
The Milanese Recchi family built its fortune in the garment industry, and at the family patriarch’s birthday fête — complete with seating chart and white-gloved attendants — he announces that he’s retiring and leaving the business in the care of his son, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and grandson, Edoardo (the doe-eyed handsome Flavio Parenti), starting Love’s generational drama over the future of the family.
The real fireworks, though, come courtesy of Tancredi’s Russian wife (Tilda Swinton, who learned Russian and Italian for the role, and delivers both with subtle, consummate grace). Emma Recchi — the transparency of the first name is typical of Love’s sudsy plotting — is the dutiful businessman’s wife and mother of three grown children, who spends her days seeing to her mother-in-law Allegra (1960s/’70s supermodel Marisa Berenson), politely chatting with the help, and, in general, looking amazingly put together. Then Emma’s thrown off guard by her daughter’s coming-out and a bite into a seductive prawn dish prepared by Edoardo’s chef friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), at which point the movie — I Am Lust would be more accurate — spirals into an illicit love affair prepared at a sous vide pace.
Swinton is the expected and undisputed star here, slowly and sometimes wordlessly revealing Emma’s nesting dolls of passions. But the real dazzle comes from the way director Guadagnino and editor Walter Fasano choreograph cinematographer Yorick Le Saux’s shots to suit John Adam’s score. Le Saux has great people and settings to work with — everything from the food to the hillside fauna looks art-directed by mother nature herself — and Guadagnino lets the camera fluidly roam around the Recchi’s grounds, capture closeups of insects and flowers, and drink deep of spectacular architecture. Accompanying these delicious visuals is Adams’s nimble, often pulse-quickening work, where anxious strings and seductive woodwinds stir the emotions more dramatically than anything onscreen. The result is often intoxicating, symphonic pretension that goes down surprisingly well. So while I Am Love may be little more than Dynasty realized by a gifted sensualist, it can be as satisfying as hitting the $50/plate fine-dining establishment during its limited $20 prix-fixe special.