Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love defies expectations. British ice-queen Tilda Swinton shows unprecedented emotional range as Emma Recchi, a working-class Russian woman, married to an Italian entrepreneur.
Perhaps it is a game of stereotypes: there is a strong expectation that the orthodox, Catholic Italian family would be unable to accept their daughter’s homosexuality (the daughter, played by Alba Rohrwacher is herself a stereotype: an Electrelane-listening short-haired art student) but the oppressed, passionate Russian is able to break this model, and loves her daughter unconditionally.
This playing off of stereotype against stereotype, however, is not hollow. Guadagnino’s film treads the same territory as Virginia Woolf’s work: actions informed by emotional torment are played out with no interrogation of intention. Hollywood’s usual modus operandi is to have somebody feel ashamed or betrayed say out loud, “I feel betrayed”; in I Am Love, we see only the symptoms of these feelings. Rather than being spoon-fed, the spectator instead watches a series of half-explained actions, that force themselves to crisis when Emma Recchi’s affair with her son’s friend is discovered.
This absence of emotional dialogue is reflected in the photography. Often when the camera switches to Emma’s perspective, traditional vaseline-lensed flash-back techniques are used — particularly if she has just mentioned her upbringing in Russia. However, instead of cutting to the past, we see only the plants around her as she makes love in a field, or the faces of her family at the dinner table. The overwhelming result of these cutaways is that the film speaks only in the present tense, divorced from its past, just as “Emma”, re-named by her Italian husband, has been forced to deny her Russian past.
And so the same effect as Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse is achieved: polite society denies the sacrifices and oppressions that protect it, and we are reminded of the necessity of gender politics across classes. To play the entitled, ruling class mother in twenty-first century Italy, Emma Recchi has to deny her transgressive sexual desire and to lie to her husband about her total acceptance of, and dedication to, her children. Her son, Edoardo, who is heir to the family fortune, is killed by the realisation of his mother’s affair with his contemporary, the point at which she steps out of the expected social conventions of a woman of her class — a class into which she has been forced, by a total disengagement from her own history.
It is a beautiful film; aesthetically perfect framed, played out by beautiful people — the coutured businessmen, the rugged peasant-chef who eventually wins the passionate Russian woman away to their own new, Italian Dachau. Marketed to English audiences as a comedy of manners, this film is a reminder of everything that Woolf said for the women’s movement: even today, there are sections of society in which women are still cut off from economic freedom and, fundamentally, from desire.