How can you convince an audience that Tilda Swinton is capable of living a sedentary life?
You can’t. That’s one of the problems with I Am Love, the enterprising and enterprisingly twee new film from director Luca Guadagnino. It’s a family saga in the Visconti style, and Guadagnino bows very low to Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard, Ludwig, and Death in Venice (Marisa Berenson even appears in a few scenes – pretty smart, I thought), but the rest is soft-focusy hullaballoo, middling Merchant-Ivory in disguise. Rich matriarch “discovers” herself. Sex in fields. Closeups of glistening strawberries.
Which brings me back to where I started. Tilda Swinton can’t “discover” herself. Her look is too alien, her eyes too curious, and her sexuality too diaphanous. All that spells the opposite of bourgeois dispassion, which is the angle I Am Love is trying to take. It’s difficult to imagine a woman of Swinton’s rabid strangeness – somewhere between a maiden out of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and the Geico Gecko – as a Dalloway type coming to her sexual senses. Babe Paley’s look, which Guadagnino should have gone for, speaks to the patrician multitudes of ladies who lunch with their orange Fendi bags and brittle bones of Christofle. A face like Swinton’s speaks to a life like no one’s.
You’ve got to give Guadagnino credit for casting way against type. Or Swinton credit for casting Guadagnino. As one of the film’s producers, she surely saw I Am Love as an opportunity to broaden her range beyond “personality” parts, and with the right director, I’m sure she could have pulled it off, but Guadagnino, unfortunately, is more interested in things than acting. Food, for instance, draws a majority of his attention. Curtains come second, and nature third. Oh, nature! How it makes the blood run warmish!
If you want to see slow motion bees, or a woman’s hand brushing through a sward of wheat, this is the film for you. But not for me. I always get nervous when actors get D.H. Lawrencey. All that passionate abandon in all those fields and someone is bound to get a rash, no? Only Ken Russell seems to get that even the most stimulated couple has to lay down a pocket square or two. But not Guadagnino. He loves art too much.
For all of his allusions to the master, this is a misreading of Visconti. The Leopard may be a production designer’s sogno bagnato, but all that linen and drapery is a part of the realism, just a backdrop. But Guadagnino sees it as content, placing I Am Love farther from Luchino Visconti, and closer to the Tom Ford school of cinema. Pretty is one thing, but I Am Love is so tra-la, it makes Elvira Madigan look like Mean Streets.