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Blu-ray Review HTF Blu-ray Review: I AM LOVE (starring Tilda Swinton) (1 Viewer)

Michael Reuben

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I Am Love (Blu-ray)




Tilda Swinton’s film career began in the art house, and even after mainstream success in the Narnia series, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Michael Clayton, for which she won an Oscar, the art house remains her home. I Am Love (Io sonno l’amore) is a personal project that Swinton developed for seven years with writer/director Luca Guadagnino and then co-produced. She learned both Italian and Russian to play Emma Recchi, the presiding mistress of a wealthy Milan manufacturing dynasty that is being torn apart by the twin forces of economics and passion. The script, from an original story by Guadagnino, could easily be the stuff of soap opera, and viewers who coast along the film’s surface may not understand what all the fuss is about. (For examples, check out the one-star reviews at Amazon.) But open yourself to the translucency of Swinton’s complex performance – and to the formal precision with which Guadagnino composes, lights and stages his shots – and the film pulls you into moments where, even as nothing important seems to be happening, life changes irrevocably.



On the Blu-ray commentary track, Swinton mentions numerous titles that she and Guadagnino considered for the film. The title I Am Love is a homage to Jonathan Demme’s film Philadelphia, which Swinton’s character can be seen watching briefly during a pivotal moment. It’s a line from the aria sung by Maria Callas to which Tom Hanks’s character listens intently the night before his testimony.





Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment


Rated: R


Film Length: 120 minutes


Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1


HD Encoding: 1080p


HD Codec: AVC


Audio: Italian DTS-HD MA 5.1


Subtitles: English; English SDH; Spanish


MSRP: $29.98


Disc Format: 1 50GB


Package: Keepcase


Theatrical Release Date: Sept. 5, 2009 (Venice Film Festival); June 10, 2010 (U.S.)


Blu-ray Release Date: Oct. 12, 2010





The Feature:



On a snowy day in Milan, the Recchi family gathers for the birthday celebration of its ailing patriarch, Edoardo Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti, who was Marc Ange Draco in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). The party is held at the home of Edoardo’s stolid son, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) – a mansion aptly described by Tilda Swinton on the commentary as “part palace, part museum, part prison”. It is presided over by Tancredi’s beautiful Russian-born wife, Emma (Swinton). In attendance are various family friends, as well as Emma’s three children with Tancredi: the two sons, Edoardo, Jr. (Flavio Parenti) and Gianluca (Mattia Zaccaro); and the daughter, Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher).



Just before dinner, Edoardo, Sr.’s wife, Allegra (Marisa Berenson, the American-born actress best known for her work with Visconti and Kubrick), confides to Emma that her husband has reached a decision on who will inherit the family business.



Throughout the party, moments big and small reveal the relationships (and stresses) within the Recchi family. Elisabetta is a budding artist, whose customary birthday gift to her grandfather is a painting. But this year she gives him a photograph, reflecting the new direction she wants to pursue, and the responses are varied and revealing. Edoardo, Jr. is the athlete of the family, but that day he has taken second place in a race to his friend, Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a working man who is a chef in his father’s restaurant. (The nature of the race is unspecified, but the disc’s extras reveal that it was a rowing competition.) During the course of the evening, Antonio stops by briefly, and Edoardo introduces him to his mother, who seems unusually intrigued by this young cook. As we will later learn, cooking is the one of the few ties that Emma has retained to her long-buried Russian past.



But the biggest moment comes when Edoardo, Sr. announces his decision about the future of the Recchi textile business, which is the wellspring of all the opulence displayed throughout the evening. His decision is not what the family expected, and it will have a profound effect on everyone’s future.



In the weeks and months to come, Edoardo, Jr. will marry a beautiful young woman named Eva (Diane Fleri) and will make plans to open a specialty restaurant in San Remo under Antonio’s direction. Elisabetta will move further and further out of the family’s orbit in ways that only her mother understands. And the Recchi business under its new management will have to adjust to current economic realities, most clearly embodied in the person of Mr. Kubelkian (Waris Ahluwalia), a smooth-talking financier based in London, who is (appropriately enough for today’s world economy) of both Indian and American extraction. Mr. Kubelkian has a four-step plan to take the Recchi interests global, if only they will sell their textile factory to his firm.



Throughout these events, Emma Recchi’s calm surface is roiled by stirring memories of her Russian childhood, and all of the energy seems to radiate toward her son’s friend who cooks and grows his own vegetables. In one of the film’s many notable set pieces, Emma joins her new daughter-in-law and her mother-in-law (“The Recchi wives!”, as Allegra calls them) for lunch at the restaurant of Antonio’s father, so that Antonio can show them the kind of cuisine that he and Edoardo will serve in their restaurant. As Emma’s fork slices into a gorgeously arranged plate of shrimp, vegetables and sauce, everything around her dims and goes quiet, and we are transported into Emma’s interior, just as she herself is transported elsewhere by the experience of tasting this impeccably prepared meal. It’s a turning point in her life.



Though I Am Love is a contemporary tale, it often feels much older, because the Recchi family belongs to a traditional, hidebound society, one based on propriety and the maintenance of social position through wealth. At the center of the family is a woman who does not belong where she is. The story of how Emma came to occupy this position is revealed late in the film, and while it isn’t sensationalistic, it’s dramatically significant. As Emma’s former life begins to reassert itself, she finds herself behaving in ways that even she doesn’t entirely comprehend. (As Swinton notes, Emma is someone who expresses herself through action, not words.) Emma’s choices have consequences as grave as the financial storms battering the Recchi empire. Late in the film, when damage occurs, it’s hard to say whether the destructive force came from within or without.



The idea for I Am Love arose from conversations between Swinton and Guadagnino about love as a powerful and uncontainable force that can be both creative and destructive (a romantic notion with a long and distinguished history in storytelling). The film’s second act concludes with a love scene in which two partners are shot in close-up with fluid camera movements, but those shots are intercut with intense scenes of nature – but not entirely beautiful nature. (Think David Lynch in Blue Velvet.) The scene walks a fine line between brilliance and hooey, and it’s some of both, but it’s undeniably cinematic and it conveys a truth that’s hard to dispute: Love is a messy business.



Even if you have reservations about the story, no lover of cinema can fail to be entertained by the sheer visual artistry of I Am Love. Its look belies its low budget. (It never hurts to have a member of the Fendi family as an associate producer.) From the extraordinary locations in Milan and San Remo to the meticulous compositions in the various Recchi households, the film is a constant treat for the eye. Just to single out one bravura sequence, the opening party for Edoardo, Sr. is a masterpiece of cinematography, in which all of the people sitting around the well-appointed table are seen in shadows that recede into the room around them. But the objects on the table itself are all brightly illuminated, from no apparent source, and it’s that light that illuminates the faces of the people. This is a household where light and life have become the properties of objects. The people are their servants. By the film’s end, some will break free.




Video:



Magnolia’s Blu-ray provides a fine showcase for the cinematography of Yorick Le Saux, who is probably best known here for François Ozon’s Swimming Pool. Whether lighting completely artificially indoors, or augmenting the natural light of the Italian sun, Le Saux creates tableaux and textures that engage the eye and deepen the emotions of the scene. The detail on the Blu-ray is exceptional, even in deep shadow, and even though the film has been processed through a digital intermediate, there is noticeable grain in various scenes, indicating that fine detail has been left intact. This is essential to an appreciation of, e.g., the ornate surroundings and fashions of the Recchis’ world, as well as of the rustic locale in which Antonio and Edoardo, Jr. hope to open their restaurant.



Black levels are extremely accurate, but this is not a film with deep, inky blacks. During the long and crucial scene of Edoardo, Sr.’s party, the darkness that surrounds the dining table is composed of ever-deepening shadows that are black, but never completely black. It’s a subtle and painterly composition that was striking in the theater and that I was hoping would be well-reproduced on the Blu-ray. It is.



If there were any digital artifacts, I missed them. The viewer can enjoy this Blu-ray secure in the knowledge that the film’s visual delights have been served up just as sumptuously as if one were at the movies.




Audio:



The DTS lossless track provides a sense of ambient sound appropriate to each environment, along with some striking effects. The film’s editor, Walter Fasano, whom Swinton calls “a philosopher”, chose to make unusual and abrupt edits at key points, and the sound designers followed them with appropriate effects. Certain environments, such as the floor of the Recchi factory, make their presence known thunderously. An outdoor party at the Recchi mansion in honor of Eva’s birthday provides an additional workout for the surround channels.



But the most powerful presence on the soundtrack is the music of composer John Adams, whose compositions Guadagnino and Swinton wanted for the film from the beginning. (Note that this is not original underscoring, but previously written pieces.) Adams’ compositions – insistent, lush, passionate – have been sparingly but skillfully woven throughout the film for maximum impact. They serve almost as a commentator on the action, and the lossless track presents them with drive and energy.




Special Features:



Commentary with Director/Writer Luca Guadagnino and Actor/Producer Tilda Swinton. The director and his star chat amiably in English, which Guadagnino speaks fluently though with a thick accent, like the old friends they are. Their conversation ranges widely over the history and development of the project, the themes of the story, and the technical challenges of shooting various scenes. Swinton is wonderfully articulate, and all of her comments, whether about her approach to performing the role, or her analysis of Emma’s predicament, are worth hearing.



Moments on the Set of I Am Love (SD; enhanced for 16:9) (14:33). This unusual making-of documentary, which should only be watched after viewing the film, is in Italian with English subtitles, except for portions featuring Swinton, who is interviewed in English. Although there is no formal explanation of the proceedings captured by the documentary crew, it is easy to understand the elements that the director and actors are exploring “on the day”, once you’re familiar with the film. Much of the documentary features interviews from the principal cast in voiceover; the interviews are excerpted from the lengthier sessions described below.



Interviews with the Cast and Crew (SD; 4:3) (1:10:36). These are interviews with all of the principal cast, the director and one of the producers. They were done during filming or shortly after. The footage has clearly been edited to extract the most informative moments, and each subject has something of interest to offer. The variety of perspectives on the story and its meaning are genuinely intriguing.



Trailers. The film’s trailer is available as a separate extra. At startup, the disc plays trailers for Ondine, The Extra Man, The OxfordMurders and HDNet and HDNet Movies; these can be skipped with the top menu or chapter forward buttons and are also available from the special features menu.



BD-Live. Hallaleujah! Magnolia has finally done something with its internet site. At startup, the disc asks whether you want to obtain an update. Say “yes”, and a short download occurs that adds a menu of additional trailers to the BD-Live entry. The trailers can be downloaded in either HD or SD and stored locally for playback. As of this writing, the listing was: Monsters, Freakonomics, I’m Still Here, Barry Munday, S&Man.




In Conclusion:



I Am Love is a classic art film in the sense that it was made by people who were answerable to no one other than themselves and their own sense of what they wanted to achieve. They created a film of exceptional integrity, but it’s not one that will appeal to everyone – not even to everyone who likes art films. They populated their story with characters who the viewer may not like, may not approve of, and may not even understand. And they risked being mocked and laughed at by allowing some of those characters to experience, express and, most importantly, act on emotions that are big and operatic – damn the practicalities. That’s a difficult act to bring off, but the older I get, the more grateful I am when people try. And even more impressed when they succeed.





Equipment used for this review:



Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)


Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)


Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough


Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier


Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears


Boston Accoustics VR-MC center


SVS SB12-Plus sub
 

ManW_TheUncool

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I'm intrigued. Will probably give this a rent when my Blockbuster Online subscription reactivates a couple months from now -- unless I manage to spot a great deal for it before then.


Thanks for another excellent review of a little known film, Michael.


_Man_
 

Walter Kittel

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I viewed this earlier today and I find myself in agreement with much that you say, Michael. The film's visual aesthetic is striking, sumptuous, and never ceases to be a thing of beauty. You can take just about any shot from this film and put a frame upon it. Gorgeous visuals inhabit the film from start to finish. I've always been a fan of Tilda Swinton and I really enjoyed her work in this film. Nice review, BTW.


- Walter.
 

ManW_TheUncool

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Still kinda debating on that tempting Amazon price, but really unsure about its rewatchability even if I find that I like it. Too bad I never got around to renting it during my last short term reactivation of my Blockbuster Online rental subscription.


So many worthy titles to collect... but it's probably more a matter of my eyes getting bigger than my stomach (and wallet)...


_Man_
 

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