Scottish actor Tilda Swinton and Italian director Luca Guadagnino spent years discussing what they wanted to accomplish with I Am Love, how they hoped to revive Douglas Sirk melodrama and sensational cinema, to immerse themselves in image and feeling instead of telling a story through dialogue. Given those goals, I Am Love is an unmitigated success. It’s a heady, swooning film in which the entire world is in tune with its protagonists: When they mourn, it rains. Flowers die in response to a tragedy. Oppressive snow blankets a dark grey world, in sharp contrast to the inside of a house hosting a family reunion, where warm, sun-drenched hardwoods blaze as if in response to the characters’ contentment. And naturally, when Swinton and her newfound beau (Edoardo Gabbriellini) make rapturous love outdoors, the flowers and insects celebrate along with them. Werner Herzog would no doubt frown at these sentimental corroborations with nature, but he’d be hard-pressed to find fault with their lush intensity.
And yet the actual story, told along broad, obvious, familiar lines, isn’t always satisfying. Swinton plays a Russian émigré, now wife to a rich Italian factory-owner. Their children, an idealistic son and a lesbian daughter, serve as heavily freighted symbols: the former of tradition and duty to family, the latter as a sensualist discovering a newfound freedom to express her desires. Swinton is in the odd position of trying to determine which of her own children to emulate, but in her passionate affair with her son’s friend and business partner, she leans toward her daughter—and toward the heroines of Sirk movies like All That Heaven Allows.
Family details aside, this is all a standard cinematic dilemma: sleepily follow society’s rules and roles, or pursue transcendent pleasure and suffer the inevitable consequences? What keeps the story fresh isn’t so much Guadagnino’s swooning sense-reveries, which sometimes flow with dreamlike wonder and sometimes just drag; instead, most of the power comes from Swinton, who always makes the most of characters imbued by passion, but straitjacketed by expectations. Those not already fond of melodrama aren’t likely to be sold by it on a much larger scale, as Guadagnino blows the emotions up to world-sized proportions. But they might be sold by the small-scale version, as those same emotions play out on Swinton’s expressively pained face.