The main loci of interest for most "art house" films are the resilience and wit of the poor or the "quiet desperation" of the middle classes. In recent times, the lives of the rich have rarely been considered suitable material for the cinema. In the pursuit of "keeping it real", audiences have been fed tales of gangsta ghettos or the suburbias of white picket fences. The super-privileged have been largely ignored. Directors have turned their noses up at the upper classes.
Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love (Io Sono Amore) is a cinematic aria to the bourgeoisie. The film luxuriates in the suffocating opulence of the Recchi family. They live in a world so tasteful and stylish that a crease out of place would precipitate a family crisis. Tilda Swinton, the film's star and producer, has described it as "Visconti on acid" which captures something of the sumptuous luxury that the camera captures: pale carpets so thick that footfalls become mute, corridors as highways of marble, interiors designed with a glacial, restrained eye. The men dress in bespoke shirts and suits; the women in Jill Sander, Prada and Hermes. This is the feudal nobility of Visconti's The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) relocated from the Sicily of the Risorgimento to the salone of the haute bourgeoisie of modern-day Milan. Guadagnino observes
Milanese people think they don't have to show off. I've been in a house in Milan - one of the most beautiful houses I've seen, in Corso Venezia, it belongs to a very important Milanese family. I went into the kitchen and there were all waiters eating silently, and on the wall there were nine Morandi [paintings].
This is Milan - it's about being extremely austere, with the most high-luxuary things. When the grandmother gives the Morandi to Emma, it seems generous but it's not; it's an act of power - giving a million-euro painting, just like that.
Not since Peter Greeenaway's The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover has food looked so sensual and provided an exact metaphor for power and sex. The eating of a succulent langoustine becomes a moment of erotic epiphany for the main character, Emma Ricchi. Every element on the plate is erotically charged, a kama sutra of flavours for the sensual appetites. Meals in the Ricchi dining room become acts of power politics or carnal seduction. The rituals of the table define this class. And, in the end, a sip of translucent soup will play a part in the collapse of the House of Recchi.
The film's soundtrack is dominated by the music of the classical composer, John Adams (the first time he has allowed his music to be used in this way), a combination of aural minimalism and operatic expansiveness perfectly express the defining tone of the film. "We had a number of real blessings on this film," Tilda Swinton explains, "and one of them was John Adams, because we fell in love with his music during the last stages of the last draft. He was just in the DNA of the film." In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross points out that John Adams's "defining move was to combine Reich-Glass repetition with the sprawling forms and grandiose orchestration of Wagner, Mahler, and Sibelius." In other words, this music is perfectly suited to the telling a modern melodrama.
I Am Love is a melodramatic riff on the Lady Chatterly/Mellors narrative: aristo, in oppressive marriage, falls for gardener and finds sexual liberation. In the case of I Am Love, Emma Ricchi falls for a cook and upstairs meets downstairs in flagrante delicto. The description of this coupling (like so many of the couplings in D.H. Lawrence) is devoid of joy and humanity. An act of supposed emancipation, feels peculiarly corseted and straight laced. As a consequence, the passion at the heart of I Am Love is reduced to torrid metaphorical gestures that left me rather cold. We learn that if you marry for money or status or power you will get money or status or power, because love cannot be bought but that's the limit of any moral insight. There is, for example, no exploration of the morality, motives or consequences of Emma Ricchi's adultery. The audience is simply expected to be unthinkingly swept along by her act of rebellion. While, I enjoyed watching this at an artistic and performance level, I was far from persuaded by it intellectually.
I Am Love is a film of immense pleasures, every one of them beautifully designed, framed and hallmarked. It evokes a social milieu that, while aesthetically rich, is inhabited by an economic elite who are emotionally and spiritually infantile. As Tilda Swinton, reflecting on the Recchi dynasty, admits, "no unearned income is fair, after all; it costs the soul eventually." For all this melodrama's sensual delights, I Am Love left me hungry for characters and plot with more psychological and moral depth and flavour. Perhaps, that will come with Guadagnino's next film. I can't wait to see how this impressive talent develops. Until then, I will have to live with the delicious memory of that langoustine and that bowl of deadly soup.