Milan, winter. At a dinner party at the mansion of the wealthy and powerful Recchi family, patriarch Edoardo announces that he is handing on the reins of the family textile company – to be run jointly by his son Tancredi and grandson Edoardo Jr (Edo). That night, Edo is brought a present of a cake by Antonio, a chef who has beaten him in a rowing race. Edo and Antonio subsequently become firm friends, and Edo helps him set up his own restaurant in the city.
Spring: Tancredi’s Russian-born wife Emma learns by chance that her daughter Betta is lesbian. Visiting Antonio’s restaurant with her mother-in-law Allegra, Emma falls in love with Antonio’s cuisine. Meeting Antonio by chance in San Remo, Emma joins him at his farm in the country, and the two embark on a passionate affair. When the family business is sold to an international corporation, the Recchis hold a dinner, which Antonio caters. As a result, a tragic turn of events affects the fate of the entire family.
When premiered in Venice in 2009, Luca Guadagnino’s Io sono l’amore was the very epitome of a festival discovery – a third fiction feature by a hitherto little-noticed director, programmed in an unobtrusive non-competition slot. Few festival-goers – outside those with a specialist interest in Italian cinema – were expecting revelations, but Guadagnino’s film was hailed by the international press as arguably the most significant film of the festival. It was one of those films that not only present a strikingly talented new director, but also reveal possibilities – of expression, scope, intensity - that had otherwise seemed underexplored in narrative cinema.
Guadagnino had previously made a low-budget meta-thriller, The Protagonists (1999), with Io sono l’amore star Tilda Swinton, and a commercially successful softcore youth-sex drama, Melissa P. (2005), based on an Italian bestseller. But if anything in his filmography gave a clue to the tenor of his breakthrough film, it was probably his 2004 documentary Cuoco Contadino, a portrait of chef Paolo Maseiri (a real-life model for Antonio), not to mention his knowingly glamorous promo shorts for fashion house Fendi, their detached chic underlaid with premonitions of the Lawrentian raptures of Io sono l’amore. (The fashion house’s leading light Silvia Venturini Fendi is associate producer on Io sono l’amore, which features both Fendi and Jil Sander in its wardrobe.)
Io sono l’amore nonetheless had its detractors, and what offended them in no small part was the film’s unapologetic opulence – a very unfashionable quality in contemporary European art cinema. The Recchi mansion is a place of regal proportions and gleaming finish, a place where not a single surface does not signify wealth, power and lofty social discretion. But Guadagnino’s film also explores an opulence of depth, of the senses, that allows this initially glacial film to burgeon gradually into a radiant extended swoon. Tilda Swinton dubbed this operatic, highly romantic narrative “Visconti on acid,” but there’s much Antonioni in it too: not just the early 60s period evoked in the overture’s snowbound Milan but also the more warmly melodramatic director of the 50s. The shades of both Italian masters hover over the film, betokened by the casting of Gabriele Ferzetti, from Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960), and Marisa Berenson, from Visconti’s Morte a Venezia/Death in Venice (1971).
Io sono l’amore could loosely be described as a family saga, although that it increasingly veers away from the other family members to focus on Emma (whose name unavoidably echoes Madame Bovary). Arranged in a series of seasonal acts, the film progresses from its chilly wintry overture to spring, as Emma becomes the story’s focus. When Emma samples Antonio’s food, she is instantly transformed: a baroque confection of prawns, seen in radiantly succulent close-up, makes her whole being explode in ravishment. Few films have so intensely evoked the combined experience of the taste, smell and sight of food; Io sono l’amore achieves a genuine sense of erotic synaesthesia. It’s not long before Emma falls into an altogether amorous rapture, joining Antonio in a Chatterley-style bucolic coupling amid sunlight, greenery and extreme close-ups of skin surfaces, raspberries and insects on moss.
Some have balked at the euphoric overload of such sequences, but Guadagnino’s commitment to a visual language of emotional intensity transcends accusations of kitsch. He aims for the amplified emotional sweep, and the formal stylization, of grand opera. A climactic sequence of revelation and shockingly abrupt calamity leads to a stark climax as Emma faces Tancredi – whose terse but brutally conclusive malediction effectively wipes her off the face of the earth: “Tu non esisti” (“You do not exist.”) Staged in a vast, echoing chapel, this austere confrontation scene takes the film beyond opera, and into the stark realm of classical tragedy. The film’s dramatic power, its sometimes ceremonial formality, are boosted by the extensive use of music by John Adams, with Guadagnino sampling his score from right across the American composer’s repertoire, including the operas The Death of Klinghoffer and Nixon in China.
One of the most striking aspects of Io sono l’amore is Emma’s gradual emergence as tragic centre. At first, although the female head of the house, she seems less mistress than administrator, supervizing an army of servants as they lay places for the film’s opening dinner. Much of the time, she seems an onlooker in her own home: when Edo holds a poolside party, it is shot from the point of view of Emma, observing discreetly from an upstairs room. It’s only later that we learn Emma was born in Russia, and remade as a Recchi by her husband Tancredi. Her Russian identity reinforces her credentials as a tragic adulterous heroine, à la Anna Karenina, and supplies an essential link between her and Edo. She used to make her son a special Russian fish soup, and it is Antonio’s bespoke version of that soup that triggers a fateful realization for Edo at the film’s climactic dinner.
This is also a political film about class and exclusion. The family member most akin to Emma is her daughter Betta, who similarly rebels sexually, embracing her lesbianism. But it is Betta, ironically, who displays the callous class instinct for exclusion, snubbing her rejected boyfriend with a brusqueness that is the true mark of the Recchis. And when the final dramatic axe falls, Emma is not the only outcast: it is wordlessly suggested that Edo’s fiancée Eva has also been shut out of the family.