I Am Love is a bold and thrilling masterpiece -- the introduction of a major new talent to the world's stage. Director Luca Guadagnino is no newcomer to films, having made several features and documentaries in his native Italy. But most of those pictures have been rarely seen in the United States. On the basis of this new movie, a career retrospective is suddenly overdue.
In terms of plot, I Am Love is a romance about lust run amok marked by the sort of 1950s melodrama and sudsy tragedy intentionally reminiscent of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray. But I Am Love is no dutiful homage like Far From Heaven. This is a cutting-edge, distinctly modern picture filled with grand filmmaking: Guadagnino's free-floating, almost magical camera; the precise and unexpected editing rhythms; the striking mise-en-scene; the eye-popping, inventive visual compositions (including some stunning overhead shots); the constant and effective use of slow zooms. At mid-film, a rather bizarre sex scene runs four minutes (an eternity in screen time) and consists primarily of close-ups of the lovers' naked bodies intercut with shots of pollinating bees.
That is one of the few sequences in which Guadagnino's artistic impulses run counter to the movie (another is the weird coda glimpsed during the end credits; what the hell was that?). Emma Recchi (the amazing Tilda Swinton) is a Russian exile living the good life in Milan, where she devotes her time to her opulently wealthy Italian husband (Pippo Delbono), a textiles magnate, and their three impossibly beautiful grown children. Emma's days are filled with planning lavish dinner parties at the family's villa and overseeing the staff that keeps the mansion churning. Initially, she seems content and fulfilled.
Then her impeccably mannered, proper world starts to crack. Emma accidentally reads a letter written by her daughter, who is studying art in London and has fallen for another woman. Emma is shaken by the news - and by the girl's willingness to cast aside her rich, well-connected boyfriend to follow her heart. Then Emma meets her son's best friend, a chef preparing to open a restaurant. He prepares a meal for her - Guadagnino shoots the food in a manner that makes it look like the most tantalizing plate of shrimp in the world - and when she eats it, her reaction is nothing less than orgasmic. To say that Emma is smitten by the young cook doesn't really describe her obsession.
Soon, she has begun doing the unthinkable, sneaking away to the man's house in the countryside, cutting her elegantly coiffed hair short and becoming increasingly erratic. The affair awakens something in Emma ("When I moved to Milan, I stopped being Russian," she tells her lover), but her fulfillment comes at a great price. The title becomes an ominous declaration: With love can come great joy, but also doom, Beware.
I Am Love is the first film to use compositions by the great, Pulitzer Prize-winning John Adams (Nixon in China, On the Transmigration of Souls) as a score, and the symphonic, sometimes discordant music considerably adds to the grandness and sweep of what is essentially an intimate character study. Right from the opening credits, in which the titles fill the screen in curly script over snowy vistas of Milan in winter, you know I Am Love is going to be something special. And the picture gets better as it goes along, culminating in a rapturous ending that exhilarates in a manner I've never felt in a movie. I Am Love isn't perfect, but what love is, really? Attention all movie buffs: Get ready to have your minds blown.
I Am Love (***1/2 out of ****) screens at 9 p.m. Thursday at Regal South Beach as part of the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (go here for more information). The movie will open theatrically in June.