The new Tilda Swinton film I Am Love (Io sono l’amore), directed by Luca Guadagnino, reminds me of a Hans Hofmann painting: a bold, exuberant, and operatic work whose rich color often belies its textural depth. The film has mostly received good-to-rave reviews (some of my favorites are here, here, and here), and critics have mulled over the film’s main themes—family saga, woman’s journey, love story—while having fun with its first epiphanic moment, one of the finest instances of cinematic food porn. When Swinton’s character, the refined and reserved Emma Recchi feasts on a dish of prawns prepared for her by her soon-to-be-lover Antonio, she becomes lost in an erotic symphony of succulent desire—Swinton has termed it “prawn-ography”—and the camera swoops deliriously about her glowing face. (In all honesty, I find Hofmann’s paintings pretty erotic, too. I’ve always wanted to run my, uh, hands all over those textured canvases.)
I haven’t, however, seen mention of what is perhaps one of the best aspects of the film: the relationships between the three female leads. Swinton, an actor known for her extraordinarily subtle characterizations and her uncanny ability to transform herself in a role (think Orlando), is exceptionally good here. On par, in supporting roles, are Alba Rohrwacher as Emma’s spirited daughter, Elisabetta, whose sexual awakening is expressed with pure joy; and Maria Paiato, as the always-composed Ida, Emma’s housekeeper and seemingly only friend. Though not overtly explored, the sympathetic rapport between mother and daughter is integral to Emma’s own awakening. Likewise, the mutual devotion, only briefly exposed, between Emma and the understated Ida receives its full due in the closing minutes of the film. Ironically, it is Ida’s sudden emotional break that makes the end of the film so enjoyably effusive (aided, in no small part, by John Adams’s vigorous score).
Could it be that critics missed this undercurrent of female intimacy because they’re so used to seeing women hashed out as shopping-addicted, marriage-crazed bimbos, or exploited as oppressed, self-sacrificing older women/mothers? Score one for nuance.