As the rich tapestry of Luca Guadagnino’s work continues to develop, his 2009 tour de force, I Am Love, remains among his most memorable. Centered around the affluent Recchi family of Milan, a textile dynasty, of sorts, I Am Love‘s true hero is Emma (Tilda Swinton), an outsider on the inside as the Russian wife of Tancredi Recchi (Pippo Delbono). Tancredi’s father, the patriarch of the family, Edoardo (Gabriele Ferzetti), makes the unexpected announcement during a family gathering that he plans to retire in anticipation of his inevitable death, and will pass the business on to Tancredi and his grandson, Edo (Flavio Parenti). The news seems to come as a blow to Tancredi, who feels he can handle the company’s affairs on his own, while Emma’s countenance remains unreadable as usual.
Because of Edo’s role as the golden son, it seems easy for Emma’s daughter, Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher), or Betta, as she’s better known, to get lost in the shuffle. This suits her well, as she’s long harbored the secret of being a lesbian. And even though the film is supposed to take place circa 2000, being a lesbian in the Recchi family doesn’t strike one as exactly permissible. Still, Emma’s openness and neutrality make Betta feel comfortable enough to confess, telling her that she’s the only one who accepts Betta for who she is. The fact that Emma’s impervious aura is the primary reasoning that drives Betta to feel safe in being honest with her about who she is speaks volumes to how much Emma has had to suppress over the years in agreeing to become one of the Recchis. Because to be a Recchi means discretion is key. After all, enjoying the trappings of wealth passed down from generations isn’t without its pratfalls.
Incidentally, the dinner at which Edoardo announces his retirement is prepared by Edo’s friend, Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), an attractive chef who immediately draws out a spark from Emma, long ago neglected sexually by Tancredi. Occasion to run in to Antonio arises later when Emma goes to Sanremo with Tancredi’s mother to visit Betta, increasingly less concerned about concealing her sexual identity. When Antonio prepares Emma a special meal of prawns at his restaurant–a scene notable for the tangible ecstasy you can feel with Emma–it appears as though cinches the attraction she can no longer deny. Hence, when she follows Antonio through Sanremo and later ends up striking up a passionate affair with him, it’s no surprise. After all, this is clearly the first time Emma has ever allowed herself to experience pleasure for the sake of her own needs, and not those of the Recchi family’s.
Her outsider status is, in part, what spurs her close friendship to the Recchis’ primary housekeeper, Ida (Maria Paiato), who Emma only gets closer to as her children grow more fully into the expected roles of adulthood. Emma’s gradual transformation from a stoic, perfectly coiffed “representative” of the Recchis to a lovestruck woman undone (with the shorn locks to add to this effect) is a stunning one to watch, capped off by a conclusion rife with expressions that speak volumes, and, consequently, one that showcases acting in its purest, richest form. But, more than anything, you’ll quickly see that I Am Love teaches us that the ultimate betrayal is to dole out a family recipe.