My girlfriends and I enjoy going to the movies together. We treat ourselves first to a high-quality dinner out and update each other about our health and our grandchildren. We’re at the stage where strategies for falling and/or staying asleep have also become a favored topic of discussion, and it sometimes happens that one or the other of us otherwise insomniacs nods off in the darkened theater following our lavish meal and plentiful wine. We hoped this would not befall us during our most recent cinematic outing; after all, I am Love is a film about an older woman and her much younger lover. And indeed, there was little chance of dozing off in this gripping melodrama.
Io Sono L’Amore (directed and co-written by Luca Guadagnino) is a sumptuous, gorgeous film that bombards and satiates the senses and (almost) fully satisfies the mind and emotions. In brief it is the story of a wealthy, rigidly patriarchal Milanese family and its sudden disruption through the power of illicit love. It is also the story of an “awakening,” of liberation from the confining codes of upper-class behavior.
Significantly, it is the female side of the family that achieves this breakthrough: wife and mother Emma Recchi, fabulously played by Tilda Swinton, discovers her true self in a passionate affair with the sensual young chef Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), who seduces her with a dish of prawns. Daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) breaks free of family expectations through her art studies in London and by coming out as a lesbian. But son and heir to the family business Edoardo Jr. (Flavio Parenti) is tragically trapped between his loyalty to the Recchi dynasty on the one hand – he has just been anointed by grandfather Edoardo Sr. as joint successor with his father – and his unconventional ideas, working-class sympathies and hidden longings on the other.
Edo embodies a divided heritage which emerges only gradually in the film. Father Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), a controlled, utterly conventional and pragmatic businessman, has subordinated himself fully to the family and and its textile-manufacturing company. It was on a business trip to Russia that Tancredi met his future wife. He gave her the Italian name Emma and brought her back to be installed as mistress of a household staff of royal proportions and elegant formality. On the surface, Emma appears the ideal matron of the haute bourgeoisie: her Italian is flawless, her manners impeccable, her dress stylish, and she manages the staff and the family dynamics smoothly and with tact. But behind the years of adaptation to this role, her younger, more passionate “foreign” self still slumbers. During Edo’s childhood Emma had shared linguistic remnants (and a particular recipe) from this Russian identity with him as a sign of the close bond between them. When Emma is awakened to the roots of her identity, their special intimacy avenges itself tragically.
The film almost overwhelms with visual and auditory feasts, marvelous for their own sake, but also important in expanding the meanings of the narrative. The camera lingers on sharply etched details of the upper-class material culture embodied in the Recchi household, revealing its chiseled perfection: a shot of symmetrically arrayed serving platters is followed by one of the precisely choreographed parade of smartly uniformed servants bearing the food to the dining room and finally a close-up of white-gloved hands completing the presentation. Monumental scenes of Milan’s cathedral architecture are employed at crucial points in the narrative – Emma at the beginning of her unsettling passion, Emma finally confronting Tancredi with the fact of her love for Antonio – and intensify the weight of these moments. Early monochrome scenes of winter snow in the Recchi courtyard yield to the brilliant sun, grasses, O’Keeffean blooms and insects of an almost excessively vibrant nature during the passionate summer love scenes. A similar contrast is drawn between the stifling formality of the upper-class mansion and the shabby rural cottage where the lovers have their trysts, disorderly but alive. The exciting musical score by minimalist composer John Adams, drawn in part from his operas (e.g. Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer), further heightens the emotional sweep and conveys the sense that events transpiring on the screen have a grand, somehow mythic or archetypal quality.
Numerous literary and operatic references further deepen the film’s impact and give it a resonance that transcends the melodramatic plot. Emma’s Russian roots and the story of upper-class family life and adultery recall Anna Karenina; the name bestowed on her by her husband suggests Madame Bovary. The final scene, in which the two lovers have escaped the bonds of family and society and embrace in the misty distance of an – otherwise unmotivated – cave, echoes other classic star-crossed lovers: Dido and Aeneas (Aeneid Bk IV), or, even more to the point, the adulterous Tristan and Isolde, who hide from King Marke in a forest grotto. The sudden, seemingly involuntary passion that overwhelms Emma after she eats the prawns prepared for her by Antonio made me think of the irresistible desire for Tristan that befalls Isolde after she mistakenly drinks the potion intended to secure her affection to her husband. Such details insert the love story into a longer, tragic tradition.
Of course, the events of Io Sono L’Amore are only partly tragic. Emma liberates herself and presumably lives happily ever after with Antonio. Her betrayal of husband Tancredi – another familiar literary and operatic name, for example from works by Tasso and Rossini – with the intimate friend of her son, however, does have tragic implications for Edo. Running throughout the film is the sub-plot of Edo’s secret, perhaps unconscious longings. At the beginning of the film the family eagerly awaits news of his success in an unspecified “race;” it turns out he has tied with his main competitor and friend Antonio – a symbolic event that only later partly reveals its significance. Although Edo tries to uphold his responsibilities as scion of the family business, his dream is to help Antonio open a restaurant. In one scene Edo weeps in what appears to be existential despair on the breast of the loyal, motherly household retainer Ida. We aren’t told the source of his anguish; it could be his conflict with Tancredi over the business, indicative of his suffering under the narrow codes of his family and class. It could also express the pain of a forbidden love – for his mother, for his friend Antonio? Edo has all along shown more enthusiasm for Antonio than for his pregnant girlfriend Eva. We learn just before the final catastrophe that he wanted to tell his mother “something important,” but his discovery of her affair with Antonio makes this impossible. He has been betrayed by the two persons he loves most in the world.
The filmic treatment of this part of the story reminded me of Phaedra, the 1962 movie by Jules Dassin with Anthony Perkins and Melina Mercouri (based on Euripides’ play Hippolytus). The plot is somewhat parallel: the attractive wife of a wealthy, powerful older man falls tragically and irresistibly in love with his son from an earlier marriage. (In Euripides’ version, Phaedra is compelled to love her stepson Hippolytus by the jealous goddess Aphrodite; she struggles, but as a mortal is powerless against her fate.) At the end of the film, Phaedra takes to her bed; a loyal servant closes the blinds as her mistress takes a fatal dose of sleeping pills. Meanwhile her young lover Alexis drives his car off a cliff to the sweeping strains of J. S. Bach, thus echoing the death of Hippolytus, who was crushed by his own raging horses through the curse of his father.
Io Sono L’Amore varies the motifs of quasi-incest and Phaedra’s suicide: Emma retires to her son’s childhood bedroom and curls up on his bed to grieve his sudden, accidental (but somehow fated?) death. As in the earlier film, the faithful servant (here Ida), closes the blinds to darken the room while Emma/Phaedra withdraws from the world. The camera also lingers on a shot of Ida weeping uncontrollably; like Euripides’ Nurse, she represents the average, non-aristocratic, unheroic human being who observes the tragic actions of the mighty and reacts with “normal” emotion. Guadagnino has shifted the parameters and complicated the tragedy by making Edo’s beloved friend the object of Emma’s passion and thus his challenger for her love. She, conversely, is the victor in the contest for Antonio’s.
While not all the cultural echos that resonate in Io Sono L’Amore may have been consciously intended by its makers, they nonetheless contribute – along with the superb acting, stunning camera work and powerful score – to the exceptional quality of this film. Don’t miss it!