In the midst of summer's bombastic, grandiose landscape, there's a film that makes up in melodrama for its lack of star wattage and special effects: I Am Love. The Italian-language film, directed by Luca Guadagnino and starring his friend and longtime collaborator Tilda Swinton, is a lush, intoxicating tale that features no grander adventure than a carefully-worded corporate merger, and at one point, a retreat to a remote Italian village for some afternoon delight, and yet, it's more engaging and more powerful than the vast majority of its competition.
A glorious epic that feels a little bit like Luchino Visconti's The Leopard by way of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, I Am Love is a truly great film that offers substance at the heart of the season's spectacle.
Swinton plays Emma, the immaculately put-together matriarch of one generation of the Recchi clan. Poached from her native Russia as a teenager and plopped into a marriage of affluence if not much affection, she devoutly attends to the needs of her family without complaint, and celebrates its success even on the eve of her father-in-law Edoardo's (Gabriele Ferzetti) retirement.
After Edoardo unexpectedly divides the family empire between both his son (and her husband) Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and grandson Edoardo Jr. (Flavio Parenti), Emma continues to feel decreasingly important in her family members' lives, even when her daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) discloses a personal discovery she's reluctant to tell her father or siblings. But when Emma shares a chance encounter with Edoardo Jr.'s classmate Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), his cooking enchants her and she slowly begins to rediscover her own passion, even as it threatens both the emotional and financial security of the Recchi family.
Although I Am Love concentrates primarily on Emma and the internal dynamics of her family, the film expands its focus to include social and even political dynamics, inasmuch as they reflect upon the core emotional conflict that Swinton's character faces. Both Edoardo Jr. and his classmate Antonio struggle to balance their familial obligations and professional responsibilities with personal ambitions, and then those concerns are refracted through the struggle to maintain control of the Recchi family business, which is slowly (and reluctantly) being integrated into a larger global community, not to mention economy. Ironically, however, that their concerns are contextualized in larger socioeconomic structures only further enhances the deeply emotional journey that Emma undertakes once the rediscovers – as much to her own surprise as anyone's – that she was missing out on so many parts of a life she previously thought was not only filled but fulfilled.
The meticulousness with which Guadagnino renders the Recchi's world is as oppressive as it is opulent, showing how every detail of their daily lives is managed and manicured to present the perfect public image, and further, how Emma is both engineer of that perception and victim to it. As a result, it literally takes her but a few seconds to let her hair down once she discovers a sanctuary from those expectations, and the combination of storytelling, set design and performance makes that transformation both archly melodramatic and utterly believable. Meanwhile, the cinematography, by the spectacularly-talented Yorick Le Saux, augments Emma's sexual and emotional re-awakening, depicting her lovemaking with a poetry and beauty that is erotic and intimate, and again, simultaneously arch and mundane.
Further, Swinton's performance, yet another virtuoso turn in a career replete with them, shows how Emma's physical complicity in a burgeoning new relationship transforms her former submissiveness into active commitment. Seldom has she looked as beautiful as she does here, but what's amazing is how that beauty – pristine and perfectly arranged at first, earthy, disheveled and sensuous later – reflects upon the character's journey. Even at the film's most dramatic moments, Swinton keeps it grounded in a sense of authenticity and emotional believability, honoring Emma's sense of both selfishness and liberation – neither one moreso than the other – as she re-evaluates her life choices and determines a new path for her future.
In tapping into the rich and varied history of melodrama on screen, leaping from Douglas Sirk to Visconti or even Hitchcock, Guadagnino embraces the entire spectrum of possibilities that can and eventually do shape Emma's life, including the melancholy acceptance of changes we cannot control, the liberation of leaving behind a secure and uneventful existence for a new and unpredictable one, and the tragedy that often accompanies even the happiest transformations. But it's the collective acceptance the film shows for these events which both normalize them and elevate them to operatic heights, creating something rich, realistic, and evocative, which audiences can connect with even without having a hermetically-sealed, silver-spoon lifestyle of their own.
Finally, there's the film's soundtrack by composer John Adams, which serves as a literal and metaphorical cue for Emma's universe and the indulgent fear and desire of her self-discovery, or rediscovery, anyway. Compiled from a number of his classical works, the music functions in much the same way as Jon Brion's scores do for P.T. Anderson's films – a sort of backbone for the film, a reference to its intended tone, and also a barometer of sorts for the character (or characters') emotional lives. Adams has previously declined to let filmmakers use his music prior to I Am Love, but one suspects that as a contemporary of folks like Philip Glass and Steve Reich he'll be highly in demand in the not-too-distant future, given the gorgeous, glorious, supremely impactful way his compositions are used here.
Of course, such comparatively humanistic films are practically blacklisted during the warmest months of the year, when escapism rules the box office. But I Am Love feels no less spectacular or immersive than its competition, because ultimately, Guadagnino simply crafted something personal and intimate with his friend Tilda, and the two of them together made it into something so much grander and more special. And if that doesn't make I Am Love the biggest transformer of the summer, then I can't imagine the giant robot and budget-busting set piece that could beat it.