House of Love
The Recchi textile empire is in decline. On the eve of his retirement, wizened magnate Edoardo Recchi, Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti) has so little faith in his son, Tancredo (Pippo Delbono) to carry on the family business that he shocks the assembled company at his late night patriarchal birthday soiree by bequeathing it to his son and grandson (Flavio Parenti), a more stalwart type. Also known as Edo, the latter is a failed athlete of some stripe, as yet uncertain of his role in the world, but who soon wants to open a restaurant.
Gianluca, the second son, is engaged to scrappy, opinionated Eva (Diane Fleri), who has a lot to live up to with respect to the Recchi dynasty. Tancredo’s wife Emma (Tilda Swinton) is the opposite of this: a calm, stoic yet somehow fragile presence, she sees to the smooth functioning of the household, and what a divinely elegant household it is.
The fall of the house of Recchi is ensured by a surprise party crasher, who appears in the form of Antonio (Edoardo Gabriellinni), Edoardo’s victor from earlier in the day, and wishes to make amends in the form of a cake – he’s a chef, you see. In short order, Mrs. Recchi is introduced to the young gourmand, quickly sees her window of opportunity – years of quiet subjugation to the depredations of the bourgeois have taken their toll – and tumbles into a wildly irresponsible affair with her son’s unlikely new best friend and business partner.
There is also a daughter, Betta (Alba Rohrwacher), away at school in Nice, who has just left her boyfriend Gregor for another woman. She doesn’t seem to identify one way or the other as a lesbian or bi, but this is not an issue for Mrs. Recchi, who feels nothing but happiness for the daughter. Indeed, by virtue of this revelation, her daughter has taught her something about love, which she will later fully comprehend.
Meanwhile, pragmatic Tancredo hovers somewhere in the background, making deals alongside his increasingly reluctant son. He wants to sell out to global corporate interests, whereas traditionalist Edoardo has a sentimental attachment to the family business, an expression of the raw Russian emotionalism inculcated by his mother, whose own desires have in turn been stifled by the docility of her role within this Italian clan. The best scene, and most revealing vis-a-vis this mother-son dynamic, occurs when the entire family is unwittingly served Edoardo’s favorite recipe, as prepared by Antonio: a distinctive Russian fish dish with a perfectly translucent broth. Realizing the nature of his mother’s secret, rent with a sudden storm of conflicting emotions, he flees the table, only to…well…
We are guided through this passionate world by the sure and steady hand of Swinton, a chameleon if there ever was one, creating a fully fleshed relationship with every cast member. However, she never stoops to Streep-esque showboating in Julie & Julia (2009), instead fully inhabiting her character, carefully constructing each layer from the inside out and marinating it in a rich stock of Italian and Russian personal history. This is the antithesis of 2008’s electric performance in Julia; here, we scarcely notice Swinton acting. She doesn’t chew the scenery as much as absorb it. The languages aren’t belabored (the film is in Italian, Russian and English), and it’s perfectly believable that she could have emigrated from Russia to assimilate into this wealthy Italian family, bringing up three equally beautiful children of her own.
I am Love, with its rich tactile feel and compelling narrative, was obviously a labor of love for co-producer Swinton and director Luca Guadagnino. The storytelling is economical, the performances uniformly excellent, the film technically masterful and smart about relationships (even the help isn’t simply relegated to the background, maid Ida [Maria Paiato] playing an integral role in the proceedings by dint of her close relationship to Swinton).
The film occasionally threatens to descend into an orgy of food porn, as we gorge ourselves on loving shots of lobster, prawns and many more of Antonio’s delicacies destined for Swinton’s ecstastic maw, which is seen in rapturous close-up. Here once again, Swinton’s remarkable face is a canvas for a panoply of simultaneous emotions, in a gender-inversion of the proverbial cliché of the stomach as the quickest route to a man’s heart.
However, something in the execution feels rather bloodless. For all the earthy passions and sensuality on display, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was being forced down my throat, as it were. Perhaps, like Swinton’s character, the film has been somewhat strangulated by its own elegance – the lush interiors are straight out of Architechural Digest, the flawless designs Italian Vogue, and the forays to San Remo seem a bit traveloguey in a Condé Nast sort of way, albeit gorgeously photographed. For a film purportedly about love, all is surface detail. Even that icon of ‘70s piss-elegance, Marisa Berenson, pops by for a turn as the patriarch’s wife.
These factors alone shouldn’t compromise the viewer’s enjoyment of the film, especially in the service of such rich material; my only beef is the underlying sense that the filmmakers seem to be cuing the audience to react to all the epicurean delights on offer. To wit: when we follow Swinton on a clandestine trip to the San Remo compound, where the two men wish to open their restaurant, we succumb along with her to the tactile pleasures of this hothouse atmosphere (and the rugged charms of Antonio). However, it’s all a tad self-conscious. Look, here are herbs being plucked fresh from the lover’s garden, crushed in hand – can’t you just inhale their scent?! There, quivering, hairy stamens and pistils intercut with shots of sweaty armpits, damp bodies in coitus – revel in the muggy sensuality! Feel Swinton released from the rarefied air of Italian aristocracy! Being programmed in this way tends to shut the viewer down, creating distance where one assumes the intended effect had been intimacy and warmth. It’s the type of film in which one imagines one should “luxuriate”.
However, the plot soon takes a sudden U-turn, and what had been ostensibly a film about love turns abruptly into a dissection of grief. The details are met with matter-of-factly, crucial choices are made, but they are presented in a far-from-conventional Hollywood fashion. The filmmaker can only be commended for the bold strokes he exhibits in the operatic final scene. It’s art, but I just wish the film didn’t leave one with that familiar Chinese takeaway feeling – momentarily satisfied, but an hour later hungry for something more.