August 3, 2010

I Am Love

August 3, 2010

Beautiful Milan. Sumptuous food. The fantastic Tilda Swinton as a Russian émigré turned Italian society matron. Sweet. A film about mature people who don’t point guns at one another to solve their problems. What’s not to love?

Unfortunately, almost everything.

Swinton plays Emma, the wealthy, repressed older woman who falls for Antonio, a master chef and orchestrator of a grand family dinner where he woes her with these prawns. The ear-splitting music by John Adams swells, while Emma savors the sea scavengers that change her life.

There’s more lovely food, including this bowl of Russian soup called ukha that reveals the relationship between Emma and Antonio to her unsuspecting son, a kind of culinary deus ex machina.

Emma is the quiet eye of a storm. Her husband’s father bequeaths the family business to her husband and son and then dies, I think. That’s how murky the plot is. Afterwards, there’s lots of talk about selling their factory, which doesn’t amount to much, since the deal also takes place off-screen—but not before a fatuous Indian-American offers a lecture on globalization. Huh?

Swinton, who’s one of my favorite actresses, remains largely mute. (Is her mastery of Italian and Russian too limited for the role?) There’s an unfortunate scene during which she pretends NOT to understand English, reminding me how much I’ve been missing her wonderfully modulated voice here.

The movie is a treat for the eyes, and some of the scenes are breathtaking, especially the first time Emma trysts with Antonio. Once again, I couldn’t tell whether they truly made love or just fantasized about it. I scratched my head. Such an overwrought narrative, so much deliberate fuzziness. Not a winning combination.

Here are a couple of other things bugged me.  
  • Emma pays dearly for her “sin.” What happens is out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the movie and punishes her as if she were Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, instead of a modern woman who decides she simply wants more out of life than her husband can give her.

  • Several key scenes are played as if there’s no screenplay. Case in point, after a funeral at the end of the movie, an unstrung Emma—well, her hair is mussed, and her eyes are rimmed in red—stares at her husband. When he tries to comfort her, she matter-of-factly states that she’s in love with Antonio. Her husband, equally unruffled, tells her she’s dead to him, turns on his heel, and walks out. End of relationship. That’s the most they’ve said to one another over the entire 120 minutes. How did these two people manage to marry and have children?

As I sat through the credits and a final hazy shot of Emma and Antonio (not this one) in some kind of cave, I tried to figure out why I hadn’t fallen under the spell of these characters and their story. I’m a sucker for films that take place in Italy. Throw in a great cast and people with real issues, and I should be hooked.

But this one didn’t work for me. Why? Because it seemed like an exquisite series of perfectly-posed photographs in a coffee table book rather than a real flesh-and-blood narrative about characters with inner lives I could care about.

****Here are a more positive review and a trailer.****

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