When and why did the melodrama become so unfashionable? The tempestuous swell and exquisite agonies that wrenched the audiences’ emotions during the 1940s and 1950s slowly gave way to a trend for intellectual reserve, rigour and cynicism that persists in quality cinema to this day. ‘Melodramatic’ became an insult. The tacit message to film-makers is by all means engage the mind – but risk accusations of cheap manipulation if you attempt to engage the heart as well.
To earn the grudging respect of the cognoscenti, contemporary melodrama has had to present itself as an intellectual exercise. Todd Haynes’s homage to the films of Douglas Sirk, Far From Heaven, is the most successful example – unarguably a melodrama but justified to the hardliners by its scholarly re-creation of the tropes of Sirk’s rich, ripe domestic dramas.
All of this makes I Am Love, co-written and directed by Luca Guadagnino and produced by and starring Tilda Swinton, a wondrous anomaly. Watching this lush, operatic Italian drama about a clannish family of wealthy Milanese industrialists is like suddenly being exposed to a full orchestra when you have become accustomed to listening to the plaintive sawing of a lone violinist. It’s an exquisite, all-enveloping feast of sensual pleasures. It’s almost certainly the most elegant piece of cinema you’ll see this year. It is melodrama as celebration rather than as guilty pleasure.
Guadagnino and Swinton worked together on this project for 12 years and this long period of development was not wasted. Every element of the film gels, from the superlative score from opera composer John Adams to the intimate sound design to the liquid cinematography by Yorick Le Saux that floats and flows, capturing the coded glances and covert gestures that keep the Recchi household machine running. Most impressive, however, are the meticulously sculpted performances. Swinton is magnificent as Emma, the Russian-born wife of Tanchedi Recchi, heir to the Recchi empire. The role requires Swinton to act in Russian-accented Italian and in Russian – what’s incredible is not just that she does it but how effortless she makes it seem. Also wonderful are Marisa Berenson, as Emma’s formidable mother-in-law and Alba Rohrwacher, as Elisabetta, Emma’s artist daughter and the first of the family to rebel against the constraints of the Recchi name.
Guadagnino’s measured pacing means that initially we don’t even realise that Swinton’s character is the centre of the story. Reserved, somewhat aloof, she seems to be just another polished, precious gem in the Recchi collection. But a fateful encounter with a handsome young chef and his sublime cooking gradually awakens the young girl who has been dormant in Emma since she left Russia to be Tancredi’s wife. A chain of events leads to a shattering tragedy.
Guadagnino references both Visconti and Hitchcock as the saga unfolds, but his voice is original and his vision utterly compelling in its own right.
– Wendy Ide, The Times (London)