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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

I Am Love (review)

I Am Woman, Hear Me Whimper

I got into a bit of an intellectual tussle last night with a fellow critic who was absolutely stunned to hear me insist that damn straight, I certainly could condemn a movie for its morals. In fact, that’s primarily how I approach a film and primarily how I think about it afterward: Do I like what it has to say? Do I like how it says what it has to say? This other critic appeared confused, seemed to think I was condeming the morals of Tilda Swinton’s protagonist in I Am Love — this other critic, a man, appeared to believe that I would agree with him that a married woman who has a sexual affair with someone other than her husband is automatically reprehensible, and he chastised me for letting, as he seemed to believe I had done, my revulsion for such an unnatural woman sour my opinion of the film.

Ha! I do not automatically condemn any character in a fictional story for anything they do — context is important, as is the film’s perspective on that character and those actions — but in any event I wasn’t talking about the morals of a character but the morals of a movie. Which are absolutely not the same thing at all.

So, that is indeed the basic deal with I Am Love: Tilda Swinton (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Burn After Reading), matriarch of a ridiculously wealthy Milan family, has sex with a man not her husband. And she likes it. Such a woman and such an action might or might not be reprehensible, and director and screenwriter Luca Guadagnino might have taken a variety of attitudes toward such a woman and such an action. It is the disdainful weather eye he casts upon his own story about this woman that makes me hate this film with as much passion as Swinton herself brings to it.

Truly, I Am Love does look absolutely ravishing on the screen. There’s a luscious fantasical quality to the lives of the Recchi family, who made their fortune in textiles and lavish in every luxury their affluence affords. As the film opens, Emma (Swinton) is preparing for the birthday party of her much older husband (Pippo Delbono): the veritable army of liveried servants she oversees in this task is like something Jane Austen might have imagined if she’d written a novel set 200 years in her future. Milan looks so amazing in this movie, and Tilda Swinton looks so amazing in this movie that it instantly catapulted me into reveries of being tall and slim and gorgeous and rich and able to hop on a private jet to Italy and be gorgeous and happy and dressed in clothes that cost six months’ rent in the Italian sunlight. Visually, this movie is so impressionistically beautiful it made my heart ache.

And then I saw where the story it was telling was going. It slowly layers on a portrait of a woman so dedicated to her family — her rich husband who is never ever home, her grown children who now have lives of their own — that she has nothing at all for herself. Literally nothing. An immigrant from Russia, spirited back to Italy by the man she would later marry, she has actually forgotten her own name: it’s not Emma, that’s just something her husband decided to call her. (And if you don’t want to believe that a woman could actually forget her own name, then just take it as a metaphor for total female subjugation. That works just as well.) Emma is watching her daughter, Betta (Alba Rohrwacher), discover things about herself — and embracing things about herself — that are making her so happy to just plain be herself. And her son, Edo (Flavio Parenti), is watching Mom with sudden jealousy as Emma gets more than friendly with Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), the chef with whom Edo is going into the restaurant biz.

The film perhaps hints that Edo — who is married to a pregnant wife — might be gay, might be secretly in love with Antonio himself (except that in the feudal familial structure of even 21st-century Italy, he must carry on the family name, “be a man,” blah blah blah). But Edo doesn’t have to be gay if it’s merely the tired nonsense about Italian men and their mothers rearing its ugly head. Edo could simply be a tedious example of the grown man who cannot bear to think of his mother as anything other than his mother, certainly not any kind of sexual creature with needs of her own. I wanted to smack Edo and tell him to grow the fuck up and get over himself. But I Am Love looks approvingly upon Edo, appears to believe that any woman who dares to have anything all her own — as Emma briefly has with Antonio, mere moments of pleasure that have nothing to do with taking care of her husband or her children or her household — is transgressing boundaries she shouldn’t transgress.

Now, of course it’s true that our society often does punish women who transgress boundaries. But Guadagnino has deliberately constructed his film to push us toward seeing Edo as right and Emma as wrong, and the melodramatic bullshit toward which Emma and Edo are herded is preposterous. This story wasn’t pulled out of an ether over which Guadagnino had no control: he wanted us to make sure we understood how deeply fucking tragic it is when women take anything for themselves. It doesn’t just cause a bit of a row, it doesn’t just make a woman’s life a little bit miserable for a little while: it steals from a woman everything and makes her an outcast of biblical proportions. And, Guadagnino nods in support, that that’s how it should be.

Fuck that shit.


MPAA: rated R for sexuality and nudity

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • Mike

    a woman so dedicated to her family — her rich husband who is never ever home, her grown children who now have lives of their own — that she has nothing at all for herself.

    Nothing at all? What about her family, all her money, her luxurious lifestyle and all that free time she must have with everybody out of the house? It sounds to me like a garden of Eden – you can have anything you like just don’t eat from the tree of sex.

    Even if you say, “Well, she doesn’t have what she really wants” does that mean that her choice to go after what she really wants can’t have tragic consequences?

    he wanted us to make sure we understood how deeply fucking tragic it is when women take anything for themselves.

    If you’re going to make a film about infidelity, somebody’s got to cheat. It’s not like everything comes up roses in the movies when guys cheat. And if a guy in a movie had devoted his life to providing lavishly for his family and was having an affair, would you call it “daring to have anything all his own” or “mere moments of pleasure”?

    I’m not a huge fan of puritan morals, or even monogamy, for that matter, but if you want to convince me this movie is immoral, you’re going to have to give me more to work with. What’s immoral about it? That she’s in a loveless marriage? That she screws around and it hurts her husband?

    Maybe the consequences of this infidelity are so outlandish the immorality is made clear there and you can’t elaborate without spoiling the film. Perhaps. But people have been murdered, wars have been fought, I’ve even heard my sweet old grandmother advocate my father’s castration as a consequence of infidelity.

  • MaryAnn

    Nothing at all? What about her family, all her money, her luxurious lifestyle and all that free time she must have with everybody out of the house? It sounds to me like a garden of Eden – you can have anything you like just don’t eat from the tree of sex.

    If she has anything at all beyond devoting herself to her family’s needs, we don’t see it. Forgetting her own damn name isn’t enough for you? That’s the abject kind of self-abnegating this character is meant to be suffering.

    Maybe the consequences of this infidelity are so outlandish the immorality is made clear there and you can’t elaborate without spoiling the film.

    That’s it. I’m trying not to spoil.

  • SPOILERS>

    Do you think, possibly, that this film could be saying something very different? That it’s about the repression of women, and the desperate measures they need to go to to escape?

    When Emma was ‘punished’, I was horribly offended. It seemed like just another film where infidelity leads to terrible things (Fatal Attraction or any of those 80s/90s thrillers, which usually had ‘good’ men succumbing to ‘evil’ temptresses).

    But then, with the (admittedly surprising) climax of the film, it seemed to be saying FINALLY she found a way out. Her daughter was forced to live a double life, in essence, but Emma managed to escape.

    I found the film didn’t encourage much more than passivity from the viewer until the ending, which kind of surprised me.

    I admit I didn’t find this moral of the story clear cut, but at the same time I didn’t witness the “disdainful weather eye” you mention.

  • MaryAnn

    SPOILERS

    it seemed to be saying FINALLY she found a way out. Her daughter was forced to live a double life, in essence, but Emma managed to escape.

    To go live in a cave with her lover? This is escape?

  • Lady Tenar

    What about her family, all her money, her luxurious lifestyle and all that free time she must have with everybody out of the house? It sounds to me like a garden of Eden – you can have anything you like just don’t eat from the tree of sex.

    Mike, I want you to imagine that you live in a lavish household with plenty of money to spend but no job or intellectual pursuits of your own and a partner who is not available to you, sexually or otherwise. And that you have “all that free time” with “everybody out of the house.” (ie. nothing to do and no meaningful human contact on a daily basis.) Your only job has been to raise a couple kids, who are now grown up and taking care of themselves. Does this sound like the garden of Eden to you? No? Do you think you wouldn’t probably be spending every waking moment of every solitary, monotonous day thinking about “eating from the tree of sex?” No? Well, why should a woman be any different? Unless you want to argue that there’s just something about our ladyminds that makes us quite suited to life in a guilded cage. Certainly many people do try to argue this.

  • MaryAnn

    The killer is the idea that women aren’t even supposed to want to eat from the tree of sex even within the confines of marriage. She should be happy that her husband provides for her material comfort: what else could she possibly need?

  • To go live in a cave with her lover? This is escape?

    Yes, well, I didn’t think they actually went to LIVE in the cave.

    It’s funny how different perceptions of a film can be. My girlfriend thought this was a wonderful film and all about Emma’s escape to a better life, whilst she was horridly offended by The Box and refuses to talk about it even now. As a feminist myself, both of those movies gave me pause, but I wasn’t able to land either side of the issue, and yet, from the same perspective, I thought Mona Lisa Smile was one of the most disingenuous and insidious films ever made.

  • MaryAnn

    SPOILERS

    Yes, well, I didn’t think they actually went to LIVE in the cave.

    And as with Emma forgetting her real name, we don’t have to take this literally. But it is perhaps even more powerful taken metaphorically, because then you can’t even rationalize the turn of events away with some sort of prosaic reason. You know, you can’t say, “Well, Emma just needs a place to stay for the night, and she’ll be back on her feet in a couple of days.” Instead, the director wants us to know She. Has. Been. Exiled.

  • Sara

    But Guadagnino has deliberately constructed his film to push us toward seeing Edo as right and Emma as wrong, and the melodramatic bullshit toward which Emma and Edo are herded is preposterous.

    I didn’t get this at all from the film. I thought Edo was portrayed as hopelessly naive. He was stuck in the past, and he couldn’t fathom someone he loved having flaws, i.e. his grandfather and his loyalties during the war. Once he discovered the way his grandfather ran his business, his innocence was beginning to fade, and he allowed himself to see the truth about his mother and Antonio.

    I don’t think Guadagnino is trying to show us that either one is right; it seems that he has given his characters flaws and different moral compasses. I don’t think there is a “right” in this scenario.

    The ending isn’t ‘bullshit’, it’s tragic because it’s so realistic. Edo was upset about losing the idea of his mother as a Madonna figure, and to someone who was obviously working class and his age, and he acted out. It was completely in character, because Edo was a very alive and emotional person who fell in love quickly and completely and wore every emotion on his sleeve. The director doesn’t condone Emma’s behavior, he provides background and context for her actions and then shows her behavior and the consequences. She wasn’t exiled. She chose her future, something that she hadn’t done until that point.

    It’s true; had the film been about the male head of the family having an affair with a younger woman, it would have been a completely different story. But the one we got was pretty incredible. I think that not drawing the audience in completely with her character was a deliberate choice…she was untouchable, and kept her emotions hidden from everyone until that amazing final scene when it seemed like her face literally melted after years of keeping herself expresionless. Unbelievable job by Ms. Swinton.

  • Jean

    I looked at the classical allusions in this film and believe the whole story is about ethical relativism. We start in the 14th c with Dante, touch Proust in the 20th and look at fundamentalism vs. situational ethics now.

    I Am Love
    The film opens in Milan , Italy where the city is encased in SNOW (suggesting the 9th circle of Dante’s Inferno.) As the guests arrive for the Tancredi’s birthday party, we are introduced to Eva Ugolini. This name conjures up the famous story of Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri who are placed in the 9th Circle of Hell. Another famous pair in Dante’s Inferno that is suggested by this film: Francesca and Paolo (the lovers in the Lustful Circle of hell)).

    DANTE’S INFERNO
    Dante divides circle 9, the circle of treachery–defined as fraudulent acts between individuals who share special bonds of love and trust. The Ninth Circle is ringed by classical and Biblical giants, who symbolize the pride and other spiritual flaws lying behind acts of treachery. In the circle of the lustful, Francesca identified her husband (Gianciotto)–who murdered her and Paolo (Gianciotto’s brother)–as a future inhabitant of circle 9. Traitors to political entities, such as party, city, or country, are located here in the 9th Circle .

    Fraud: Pimping and Seducing, Flattery, Simony, Sorcery, Political Corruption, Hypocrisy
    The offenses of circles 8 and 9–the lowest two circles of hell–all fall under the rubric of fraud, a form of malice–as Virgil explains in Inferno 11.22-7–unique to human beings and therefore more displeasing to God than sins of concupiscence and violence. While all versions of fraud involve the malicious use of reason, circles 8 and 9 are distinguished from one another according to the offender’s relationship to his or her victim: those who victimize someone with whom they share a special bond of trust (relatives, political / civic comrades, guests, benefactors) are punished in the lowest circle; if there exists no bond besides the “natural” one common to all humanity, the guilty soul suffers in one of the ten concentric ditches that constitute circle 8.

    The Story of Count Ugolino in Dante’s Inferno
    Dante placed Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri in the ice of the second ring of the lowest circle of the Inferno, which is reserved for betrayers of kin, country, guests, and benefactors.

    Ugolino’s punishment involves his being entrapped in ice up to his neck in the same hole with his betrayer, Archbishop Ruggieri, who left him to starve to death. Ugolino is constantly gnawing at Ruggieri’s skull. Ugolino’s gnawing of Ruggieri’s head has been interpreted as meaning that Ugolino’s hatred for his enemy is so strong that he is compelled to “devour even what has no substance”.

    THE STORY OF FRANCESCA DA RIMINI AND PAOLO

    Guido I da Polenta had been at war with the Malatesta family. When a peace was negotiated, Guido wanted to solidify it by marrying his daughter Francesca to the Malatestan heir, Giovanni Malatesta (Gianciotto), son of Malatesta da Verucchio, lord of Rimini . Giovanni was brave but deformed. Guido knew Francesca would refuse Giovanni, so the wedding was performed by proxy through Giovanni’s handsome brother, Paolo.

    Francesca fell in love with Paolo and was unaware of the deception until the morning after the wedding day. According to Dante, Francesca and Paolo were seduced by reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, and became lovers. Subsequently they were surprised and murdered by Giovanni before they were able to repent. However, it is likely that the adultery was much more calculated.

    OTHER REFERENCES:

    The film references an Italian film, The Leopard, by naming the son, Tancredi.

    LEOPARD

    The poem finds Dante lost in a dark wood, assailed by three beasts (a lion, a leopard, and a she-wolf) he cannot evade, and unable to find the “right way”—to salvation.

    Dante uses the leopard to represent malicious or fraudulent sins because the leopard, having a spotted pelt, will disguise himself from a potential creature of prey. The leopard will bide his time and strike at the most optimal moment, when its prey least suspects it. Dante develops this association because those who commit sins of fraud usually present themselves respectably, rather than revealing their true motive.

    PROUST and his madeline is the Prawn correlation which created the sense of ecstasy. If you recall, Emma first sees her childhood, then Antonio. Very Proustian.

  • MaryAnn

    Edo was upset about losing the idea of his mother as a Madonna figure

    I think a man should be over that delusion — that his mother is not a human being — by the time he is, you know, a man.

    And I don’t care how many classical literary allusions are in the film: that doesn’t make me enjoy any more a story about a woman who is punished for daring not to make her husband and her adult children the absolute center of her life, to the exclusion of all else.

  • Chris

    I am afraid Ms. Johanson saw a very different movie than I did.

    I Am Love was a film about a woman claiming a life of her own, not a film about a woman being “punished,” for rediscovering herself and reviving her spirit.

    Ms. Johanson also badly misunderstood what the character of Edo represented. He was not supposed to stand in as the moral authority of the film, rather his character was a hopelessly naive romantic who blindly clung to oppressive tradition and a family history based on lies. He represented the chains of a long gone past which held back those living in the present. The dramatic ending represented a clean break from the past and the opportunity for Emma/Kitesh to claim a new life on her own terms.

    Finally, if Ms. Johanson desires to bring realism into a review of a romantic melodrama, then I would argue that the most realistic thing for a woman to do when she finds herself in a failed marriage is to leave and move on with her own life. Long gone are the days when women in bad marriages had few choices beyond resigning themselves to the role of helpless victim. And, the movie shows the evolution of Emma’s character from victim to empowered woman. Playing the part of pretty hostess for a neglectful spouse is the act of a victim. Bumbling into a secret affair with the close friend of one’s son is the desperate act of a victim. But, (SPOILER) rejecting the stifling wealth and protection of a husband one no longer loves and telling him that their marriage is over, as Emma does at the end, is the act of a strong and self-assured woman who has decided to take control of her own destiny. So, yes, Ms. Johanson, Emma did find the courage to say, “Fuck that shit.”

  • Buble

    Hi. I think it was the grandfather’s birthday, not the father’s…need to check, but I could be right because I’m Italian and speak the language. And I don’t think Edo and his woman were married yet. The fiance was ignored after Edo died – I think the director was talking more about Patriarchal Italy and not about how devestating it is when women take something for themselves.

    Just my opinion. I could be wrong – I’m a submissive Italian, after all.

  • MaryAnn

    I would argue that the most realistic thing for a woman to do when she finds herself in a failed marriage is to leave and move on with her own life.

    I agree completely. What in my review suggests that I don’t?

    And, the movie shows the evolution of Emma’s character from victim to empowered woman.

    This I cannot agree with. Yes, she is something of a victim to start with, and yes, she begins to take some life for herself, but in the end, she is not empowered. The film does not look upon her acts as empowered, or beneficial, or positive. Not in any sense.

    SPOILERS

    Does Swinton’s character seem *happy* at the end of the film? Does the film give us any hint that she is now about to embark upon a life that will make her happy? No. There is no hint of this whatsoever.

    Instead, what Swinton gets for being “empowered” is a dead son and exile from her family. And though there had been no suggestion whatsoever that she actually *wanted* a life with the chef, she’s now stuck with him, it seems. (Just because she enjoyed having sex with him does not mean she wanted to run away with him. She might have been perfectly happy to continue living her luxurious life with her rich husband and spoiled kids and had her lover — or lovers — on the side. You know, like men get to do.)

    If there is “empowerment” for this character, it comes at an enormous price.

  • Chris

    MaryAnn, I appreciate your response. I neglected to subscribe to the comments and I had not realized you responded.

    To use a worn expression, I guess we will have to “agree to disagree.” Watching I am Love, I saw a film that was profoundly feminist at its core. You apparently saw a move which served as propaganda for the patriarchy and justified punishing woman for taking anything for their own.

    SPOILER: I do agree partially with your comment about the ending of the film. I think the movie made a small error as the credits rolled when it showed Emma/Kitesh in the cave with Antonio. The movie should have closed with the open-ended scene of her departing from her family’s house and boldly embarking on a new life journey. (I think any future releases should simply exercise the tacked-on scene following the credits).

    I saw the final scene (the one before the credits) as a choice by Emma to claim a new identity of her own making and to cleanly break from the identity constructed for her by her husband and his family dynasty. Although her husband repudiated her following the revelation of her affair, I interpreted her departure from the family house not as an exile, but rather the commencement of a new life of her own making. (Also, while I certainly did not view Emma’s husband as a sympathetic character, I think most spouses, male or female, would become angry and respond poorly if their husband/wife proclaimed their love for someone else at their son’s funeral. But, then, I think one of the film’s main arguments is that one must live truthfully, even when doing so may initially seem costly since the price of living falsely is ultimately always much higher).

  • matth

    Though I doubt anyone’s reading these comments anymore, I’m surprised people take the “cave” shot so negatively. To me, it recalled the scene between Emma and Antonio earlier in the movie, when we see them on the rocks near the creek. We lose track of Antonio after the accident, so including a moment that showed Emma and Antonio together was useful to give closure to the audience.

    It absolutely did not occur to me to read the shot as representing isolation, exile, or deprivation, as a lot of others seem to read it.

  • MaryAnn

    Right. Cuz why would expulsion from a life of wealth and privilege to live in a cave represent isolation, exile, or deprivation? :->

  • Tmax

    Right. Cuz why would expulsion from a life of wealth and privilege to live in a cave represent isolation, exile, or deprivation? :->

    Perhaps it represents an Edenic environment, not deprivation? A story of the triumph of love over materialism, patriarchy and tradition? Did it not seem to you, as it did to me, that her daughter was both happy and proud for Emma, in a bittersweet way, as she left her family to embrace her lover? There were both tears in her eyes and a smile across her face.

  • MaryAnn

    Caves are Edenic?

    Tilda sure didn’t look very happy in her cave…

  • texphile

    I havent seen the movie yet but I am seriously intrigued. Judging from the level of debate it engendered I think it will be a pretty good movie to see at the theater. I may have more comments after I see it. It will be interesting to see if I agree with MA’s pan of the movie or other’s defense of same.

  • Tmax

    Caves are Edenic?

    Well where do you think they took shelter in Eden, The Ritz?
    Tilda was both happy and sad, and, I think, confused by the emotional tumult of the situation.

  • MaryAnn

    Well where do you think they took shelter in Eden, The Ritz?

    Ah, I was confused. I thought you were using “Edenic” in the sense of a nonreligious synomym for “paradise.” But you meant the Biblical Eden. So I suppose we should assume that Tilda will shortly be blamed for corrupting her lover?

  • Gianna Nemrac

    Dear Marry Ann,you keep mentioning that she was punished by the filmmaker,let’s for a moment pretend that the story was a real one, just like life,lots of unexpected things are happening…the coincidence was that her son dies…while he was upset that his mother wasn’t who he thought she is…i think what it matters is that in these circumstances,when she is in deep grief ,she is still strong enough to admit her true feelings (even to her husband) and to continue being the woman that she became, when she finally let herself discover.A strong woman!

  • Gianna Nemrac

    you accepted so nicely the idea that she forgot her name as a metaphoric touch,and now you are not accepting the fact that the cave metaphorically represent her happiness ,the continuation of her discoveries about herself, while her daughter remains “more richer”(to quote her) in the family ..she stays behind..

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