Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Identity Crisis

I Am Love (dir: Luca Guadagnino)

Perhaps this movie’s very title, pretentious and grandiose as it is, should have been a giveaway, but I’d read enough positive thoughts on this film (not least Jonathan Romney’s rapturous piece in ‘Sight & Sound’) to believe it might be a bold and exciting piece of cinema. Whilst the film begins with considerable promise, the final impression is one of incoherence and catastrophic misjudgement. Ultimately, ‘I Am Love’ is exhausting and infuriating.

Film critics are now so frequently blinded by technical skill. As a result, directors such as Carlos Reygadas are all too easily indulged for pompous and didactic work. There is certainly enough technical accomplishment in ‘I Am Love’ to suggest that Luca Guadagnino is a promising director. The names of many Italian masters have been used as reference points – not least film-makers as different from each other as Visconti and Antonioni. In the early stages of the film, with its superb family dinner sequence, and with some elegant, meticulously framed shots of the Recchi family’s extraordinary mansion home (particularly of Tilda Swinton’s graceful walks up and down the staircase), I felt a more transparent influence was the great Orson Welles.

The film begins as what appears to be a subtle, restrained but simultaneously poised family saga. When the retiring grandfather unexpectedly bequeaths the family textile empire to both his son and grandson to share, it sets the scene for an intriguing and compelling power struggle. Yet this becomes simply the restrictive and repressive context for the film’s central concern – the tragedy that accompanies Emma Recchi’s sexual awakening and discovering of her true self.

There are some positive aspects to this film. Daughter Betta’s lesbianism (a no doubt still shocking and unacceptable thing to a wealthy Italian family such as this) is handled with great tenderness, and there are some delightful scenes between her and Emma. Swinton is every bit as majestic as you might expect – brilliantly capturing the conflict between social duty and inner desire.

Also impressive is the way the film withholds crucial information until quite late in its running time. We only find out Emma’s personal history through the course of her affair with Antonio, and this is the film’s one intriguing and original device. Unfortunately, it is only really used to inform the film’s hackneyed and rather muddled theme of personal identity.

However, this is most certainly a film with fatal flaws that sadly linger long in the mind. Many critics have praised the film’s exploration of the sensual aspects of food – but I found this crass. Guadagnino and Swinton seem keen to browbeat the audience with culinary eroticism. Had they left this notion implied or understated, it could have been much more interesting. Instead, these scenes come across more like a piece of gastropornography from a Nigella Lawson programme.

Even worse is the film’s handling of sex itself. Emma and Antonio’s lengthy soft focus al fresco love scene might have been better placed in one of the Emmanuelle films, so horribly clichéd is its cutting between the building natural elements and the moving bodies. The close-ups of skin are unusual in contemporary cinema and could have been quite erotic if left on their own, but the opening scene of Resnais’ ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ achieved so much more to this effect.

Perhaps more fatally is the way that, in spite of the film’s overlong two hour running time, characters and plot strands are left undeveloped. Given his youthful energy, natural talent and passion for food, it’s easy to see why Emma might be attracted to Antonio, but less easy to see why she would fall in love with him. It’s even harder to accept that this love would endure the terrible, cataclysmic event that befalls her family as an indirect result of her actions.

It is perhaps suggested that Emma’s son and heir to the business Eduardo may too have affections for Antonio (‘when I first tasted this man’s cooking, I fell in love with him’), but we are supposed to accept that Emma is completely impervious to this closeness. Similarly, we are expected to accept that Antonio would be completely careless in his attitude towards protecting the secrecy of his relationship with Emma (the ultimate revelation, inevitably, involves food).

What we are left with is a rather didactic and unsubtle divide in the family between socially repressed women allying themselves in self-discovery, and authoritarian, conforming men. This might well be an entirely fair and observant comment on wealthy Italian society – but it is hardly in itself original. The film’s final descent into melodrama merely serves to bludgeon the audience with this point, with entirely embarrassing results.

The confrontation between Tancredi (who is a stereotyped sexless regal male throughout) and Emma in the cathedral, complete with the obligatory baptismal rainstorm, is screamingly awful. However impressive an actress Swinton is, she cannot rise above this level of cliché and heavy-handed direction. Whilst the nature of the tragic event that destroys the family is in itself shocking and unexpected, the film’s treatment of its immediate aftermath is completely lacking in nuance or understanding.

If the melodramatic final scenes, complete with religious symbolism (a post-credits coda shows Emma and Antonio entwined in a cave) are supposed to betray the influence of Douglas Sirk, the only plausible response is to highlight how superior a homage Todd Haynes made with the wonderful ‘Far From Heaven’. Many have praised the use of the bombastic music of American composer John Adams here, but I found it intrusive and unpleasant. Whilst I could just about tolerate its role in the sequence where Emma follows Antonio through the streets of San Remo (where the film achieves an enjoyable albeit decidedly Hitchcockian balance of tension and playfulness), the grandiose music that accompanies the final moments is cloying and overblown.

The problem is precisely that ‘I Am Love’ tries so hard to achieve a grand operatic sweep. This is a film crying out for a little more intimacy, reflection and care. In fact, its precisely in its more tender, less provocative moments that this picture is at its best. In trying to make theatrical gestures and romantic statements from the idea of self-discovery, it conspicuously fails to engage with what self-discovery actually entails, or even what it might mean, save for the inevitable collapse of one wealthy family. I am also deeply suspicious of the film’s implied sense that the discovery of a dormant true identity is a purely feminine thing – why are all the male characters left so stilted and underwritten? It’s entirely reasonable to make a film about female subjugation in Italian society – but it is necessary to do much more than simply render the male characters as cardboard cut-outs.

Given the response this film has had elsewhere, I know there will be people stumbling across this review who passionately disagree with me. Yet the very fact that Guadagnino and Swinton spent seven years working on this project betrays that it is, at its core, a vanity project no more worthy of serious attention than those of Mel Gibson. I honestly find it hard to defend a film that is such an inherent stylistic mess and that so thoroughly botches all its themes.

It is not enough to throw together a disparate array of knowing references for the benefit of cinephiles, nor is it enough to try to make weak material transcendent through the use of melodrama. If we accept films like this, however impressive the photography, acting and staging may be, as the best modern cinema has to offer, we are doing audiences, the art of criticism and the medium of cinema itself a huge disservice. That is simply not good enough.

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