The ascension of the severe art house actress Tilda Swinton to the A-list of international, Oscar-winning cinema is sort of bizarre. It's like a scrawny coffeehouse poet who becomes a fixture on Oprah's Book Club, or a downtown noise artist who becomes a regular on Grammy broadcasts doing duets with Elton John. Swinton is less an actress than a strange, intense icon: tall, bony, red-haired and relentless. She dominates her films.
I looked over Swinton's 25-year acting résumé and discovered that her very first film was Derek Jarman's Caravaggio, which also happens to be my first experience with extra-arty cinema. I was about 17 when this Brechtian film reached a theater in Asheville, N.C., and blew my mind. Twenty-odd years later, Swinton is still making movies that I hope today's 17-year-olds—and everyone else—will discover.
In this case, the movie is I Am Love, which is, strictly speaking, an Italian film called Io sono l'amore by a heretofore unknown Sicilian named Luca Guadagnino. With any luck, Guadagnino will be the person to resuscitate the moribund Italian film industry, which petered out in the early 1990s with the rise of nostalgic kitsch-meisters like Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) and ineffable comedians like Roberto Benigni.
I Am Love, on the other hand, is nothing less than the swaggering return of Italy's glorious cinematic marriage of technical flair and multigenerational family sagas. From Visconti and The Leopard to Bertolucci, beginning with Before the Revolution, to De Sica's last classic, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis to the relatively recent TV miniseries The Best of Youth (and let's not forget The Godfather), Italian filmmakers have excelled at sweeping sagas of patriarchs, land, aristocracy, food, sex, radical (and reactionary) politics and "nostalgia for the present," as a Bertolucci character put it.
I Am Love opens confidently and rarely loses steam. It opens to a throbbing minimalist string quartet composed by John Adams as we descend into the wintry palace of a Milan industrial magnate. The old man is dying, and the family has gathered for a grand dinner. Swinton is Emma, the Russian-born wife of the industrialist's dutiful son, who expects to receive the keys to the factory. Also in the picture are their three grown children: the arrogant, calculating Giancarlo, the timorously artistic Betta and the dashing, romantic and nave Edoardo.
These opening scenes are stately and fluidly photographed, all sliding doors, decanting wine and falling snow. Several characters' personalities and vulnerabilities are ruthlessly revealed. And in the dinner's aftermath, a mysterious visitor to the estate brings a gift—a cake—that will subtly set the film's events in motion. The cake functions as it does in prison movies, as a vessel to smuggle a key of some kind into a locked redoubt. The recipient of this key to freedom will be Emma.
The film is a succession of opulent set pieces, moving from the family compound in Milan to the freedom and romance promised by the Riviera to the cold business dealings of London. Guadagnino's talent is excessive at times, but moviegoers are the better for it. For example, when Emma, out and about in a seaside town, spots the man who will unlock her frozen inner being, the music swells and Guadagnino delivers an attention-getting Hitchcockian cat-and-mouse sequence. As Emma's inner world begins to change, Guadagnino casually employs subjective devices, like sudden jump cuts and focus pulls to capture the turmoil.
I Am Love isn't perfect. There's one major third-act development that doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. And the man with whom Emma hopes to find her liberation is an unbelievable construction, a fantasy from a woman's beach read (he really knows how to cook). Guadagnino could have devoted more screen time to making this character sensible, but his interests lie elsewhere. Instead of strengthening the narrative foundation, he devotes copious minutes of the film to poetic montages that represent the shuddering orgasms Emma achieves with her lover. And that, perhaps, is understandable, for his film is about Emma's self-realization.
Swinton may be approaching the iconic status of Meryl Streep, but she isn't an actress in the same sense. Earlier in her career, Streep was notorious for her determined preparation and immersion into roles that seemed to demand that she show off obscure accents—for which she was parodied (although she never said "the dingo ate my bay-by"). With her phenomenally successful films of the past few years, however, Streep seems to have found a way to be simply Streep. Swinton has been doing the same thing all along—she disdains "acting," and now she's on top of her game. So, it doesn't matter that, even though she speaks Italian in I Am Love, I didn't really believe she was an Italian industrial matriarch. Nor did I believe she was Russian—an important point in her character's back story. She was simply a force of nature, proclaiming, "I am Tilda."