Sex, love, food, and money: Tilda Swinton’s Milanese melodrama has got the lot. It’s free to watch for almost a year at SBS On Demand.
21 Nov 2014 - 10:52 AM  UPDATED 5 Feb 2021 - 10:25 AM

Tilda Swinton as a woman transformed by love   

Is there no role she cannot play, this strange otherworldly chameleon? Swinton has been, among other things, a wicked witch (The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe), a witty vampire (Only Lovers Left Alive) and a cross-gender time traveller (Orlando), but here she gives a textured, naturalistic performance as Emma, the Russian-born matriarch of a wealthy Milanese textile family. As mother to three grown children, she’s the warm but serious presence in a huge and rather sombre household of servants. When she meets her son’s best friend, a quiet young chef, Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), they fall into a passionate and almost wordless love, putting at risk the entire family enterprise. With only minimal dialogue, Swinton portrays a woman completely transformed – undone and remade – by love. She blossoms before our eyes. The project was developed by Swinton and writer-director Luca Guadagnino (Melissa P.) over seven years, and the result feels richly organic.

A delicate lesbian subplot

Emma’s daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher, whose pale beauty makes her a convincing genetic match) breaks up with her devoted boyfriend because she realises she loves women. Watching her child’s bravery, and the new romance that comes with it, is part of Emma’s own late awakening.

Sumptuous cinematography

Whether it’s a close-up of Swinton’s blue eyes, cloudy like moonstone, a long shot of Milanese architecture, or an extended candlelit dinner party scene, French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (Swimming Pool) creates images that feel both classical and modern. The framing is always interesting and often a little unexpected, especially when we’re seeing the elegant, highly structured world of the Italian haute bourgeoisie. Odd shots and sharply observed details create a feeling that all is not right in this strict and moneyed household.

A score to set the heart racing

The tense minimalist music of Pulitzer Prize-winning US composer John Adams is used to throughout the film, and both Guadagnino and Swinton have spoken about creating the film with this particular music in mind. Grand, pulsating and expectant, this is the perfect sonic accompaniment to the high melodrama of the story.

The food: prawns and fish soup have never looked so meaningful

The moment when Emma tastes Antonio’s prawns (no, really, they’re just prawns) is a transformative one for her: a sensual awakening presented in swooning close-up. So too, the scene in which Emma’s much-loved and complicated Russian fish soup dish becomes the catalyst for her family’s unravelling.

The birds and the bees: a rapturous sex scene

Far away from her structured existence as Milanese matron, Emma visits Antonio in his country cottage outside San Remo. Against a backdrop of blue mountains and blooming flowers, he digs the soil. The sun blazes. He takes off his shirt. But the blurred hand-held camera work and sharp edits that ensue create a scene that is witty, earthy and never gratuitous. Bees buzz, petals unfurl and pale skin is exposed to the sunlight, with filaments lit up. Nipples, hair, insects. Rapture.

Watch 'I Am Love'

Tuesday 9 February, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies
Thursday 11 February, 1:35am on SBS World Movies

Now streaming at SBS On Demand

Italy, 2009
Genre: Drama
Language: Italian, Russian
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Edoardo Gabbriellini, Pippo Delbono, Alba Rohrwacher

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