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.