Opens Fri., June 25
James Cameron is referred to, often pejoratively, as a “maximalist.” But the art house has its maximalists, too. They may not make films full of explosions and rugged Smurfs, but they’re similarly drunk on what movies can do, or what they can do with movies. Historically, they’ve been directors like Fellini and Resnais, style-over-substance types who make art that could only be done as cinema. Today, it’s the likes of Arnaud Desplechin (Kings and Queen), who stuffs his films silly with characters, references and striking stylistic gambits; and Patrice Chéreau, who, when he isn’t making bombastic bugfucks like Gabrielle, directs opera. These filmmakers restlessly, and often recklessly, play with the language of cinema, creating new tricks as transportive, in their own way, as Cameron’s 3-D.
Luca Guadagnino clearly wishes he was one of them.
The Italian filmmaker stages his earth-quaking breakthrough with I Am Love , and the title’s only the fifth or so most overheated aspect of it. Tilda Swinton, a Guadagnino regular, headlines as the sartorially perfect Russian wife of the son of a wealthy Italian industrialist. Neglected and empowered by her daughter’s recent coming-out, she gives herself over to Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), the strapping chef friend of her son. His dish of prawns and ratatouille—much like the meal served to Peter O’Toole’s ossified food critic in Ratatouille —rocks her palate and world. Soon, in the great outdoors of sun-drenched Sanremo, the two are making the beast with two backs, so in tune with nature that the wind picks up right as the two near climax.
Guadagnino wears his influences on his sleeve: He’s Douglas Sirk meets Luchino Visconti, with stray bits lifted from Desplechin. (The driving score by minimalist composer John Adams completes the film’s self-conscious self-image of all-caps ART.) But the appropriations are skin-deep. However baroque their tear-jerkers, Sirk and Visconti deftly sneaked in true insight and even satire. The story of I Am Love , though, is dime-store melodrama, its excoriation of the upper class superficial to nonexistent.
What’s more, its most nakedly cinematic passages are less full-tilt boogie delirium than derivative kitsch (see: aforementioned grassy fuckfest). Honestly, I Am Love only cooks in fits and starts and only hits the rafters at its most calm: Swinton takes a long, quiet stroll, sensually caressing foliage, an otherworldly walk that ends in a left-field, out-of-focus embrace. This sequence—plus Swinton doing beautifully in a rare, recognizably human role—are strong; the rest isn’t nearly insane enough.