I Am Love

I Am Love is the first film directed by Luca Guadagnino to receive a theatrical release here in the UK (in the USA too, for that matter), something which may now be due a serious rethink. For on this evidence, as well as that gathered from reading synopses of earlier projects, the Italian director is a cine-literate artist wrongfully overlooked.

Set in turn-of-the-millenium Milan, the film centres on the Recchi dynasty, a powerful textiles family whose ailing don (Gabriele Ferzetti) is about to pass leadership over to his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and grandson Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) at a formal dinner function. During the same dinner, Edoardo receives a visit from Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a working class chef who, much to everyone's surprise, beat Edoardo in a rowing race earlier that day. Edoardo introduces Antonio to his mother, Emma (Tilda Swinton, who also co-produced the film). Later in the film, as Edoardo struggles with his new role in the family business, Emma and Antonio begin an affair.

The opening dinner sequence is a deliberately disorienting portrait of the Recchis as both a family and a business hierarchy. Their success has been in large part due to a maintenance of strong traditions; the mild hostility with which two outsiders are treated in the sequence is telling, of both familial politics and a recurring thematic thread.

Rather than spend careful time with each of these characters so that we may immediately distinguish who is related to whom, Guadagnino paints in broad strokes, which allows no character or performance enough time to dominate or win us over. In this respect, the film resembles not so much The Godfather as John Huston's The Dead.

Like that film, there's a grace and observational subtlety to these early scenes. Time is given to both the dinner itself and to the life of the maids and servants whose work makes it all possible. The film sides with neither class: when Emma descends a staircase and exchanges brief niceties with a maid, she only does so when both are on parallel ground, while the camera remains fixed from above, all-seeing and without immediate judgement. By a high-tempo impressionism, the film asserts its world upon us, but without granting us access. It's an odd balance; Guadagnino pulls it off.

There's also a disquieting edge as a result of its aesthetic paradox – its unfamiliarity, and its confidence in our interest in it. The noble grace of the dinner scene seems superficial, about to break at any moment. We cut to reaction shots whose choice strikes us as odd, and yet by their very inclusion we're asked to question certain characters' intentions. Is this a family – and a business – built on sinister secrets and petty acts of jealousy, or are we merely projecting?

Perhaps both, as it turns out. This first scene might be interesting in itself, but it is within the overall arc of the film that its storytelling subtlety is revealed. All the seeds that affect the film's narrative are planted here: the probable split in opinion between the newly-named successors of the business, father and son Tancredi and Edoardo; the quiet suspicion held for newcomers and outsiders by soon-to-be-widowed Allegra (Marisa Berenson); the almost-invisible oppression felt by the film's emerging protagonist Emma.

If the seeds are planted early on with a Hustonian delicacy, they unfold properly with a more Sirkian focus. Events are, from here on in, seen largely through the point-of-view of Emma, the Recchis' oppressed matriarch.

There is an intense if unoriginal use of food in the film. Cuisine itself, and characters' relation to it, is a means of emotional revelation. Emma's 'love' for Antonio begins proper with a sequence of almost fantastical intensity, as she dines on Antonio's perfectly prepared seafood dish. Again, we may trace this back to an early precursor, to the moment in the first act when Antonio first appears at the Recchi home, to offer a cake he has made as consolation for beating Edoardo Recchi in a rowing race earlier that day – or as a token of friendship, or even in arrogant acknowledgement of his own victory.

With a Vertigo-like shadowing sequence, in which Emma follows an unsuspecting Antonio on the streets of Sanremo, and a did-that-just-happen-or-didn't-it blurred-out shot-from-nowhere of the pair of them kissing, as well as other delightful tricks of heady, infectious surrealism, the film becomes more and more keen to seduce, to go along with Emma's newly liberated point-of-view, her fresh engagement with the world, through rose-tinted specs or not, just as Emma herself seems propelled into the very idea of falling in love after learning her daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) has fallen for another woman.

Seduction is a key element here, and food plays as central a role as does the fashion and décor. One is reminded of Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover: adultery, decadence and patriarchal brutality – though the patriarch here is more contained than Michael Gambon's violent gangster. Underlining all of this is the suggestion that our sexual desires and satisfactions are literally fed by not so much our hunger as our need to taste, and taste the best.

Emma's sexual and political emancipation seems mirrored also by the weather. The opening montage of the film – doubling as its credits sequence – depicts rigid Milanese architecture. The shots are edited together with an ornate symmetry; are fast, overbearing, urbane and urban, claustrophobic in both visual set-up and editorial pace. Crucially, they depict a snow-engulfed Milan; picturesque, certainly, but harsh, cold. Alluring but grim.

Emma's love – in whatever form you wish to view it – happens in bleached-out sun. An alfresco sex scene with Antonio is filmed in abstract, fleshy close-up with telling cutaways to insects and flowers; the soundtrack is heightened, opting for the expressive naturalism of a rural soundscape, instead of the operatic artificiality of John Adams compositions used elsewhere. It's a scene of knowing, unapologetic sensuality, its cutaways bordering on the banal.

Love is sincerely invoked here and treated with artistic seriousness; it is an escape, an unbinding mechanism, a reaction more than action. It is also naïve, hopeless; an emotional construct – if it can emancipate, it is a self-preserving by-product of rather silly, superficial connections – in this case, to food and the weather, both of which become exotic representatives of the Romantic Other. But given Emma's own personal background, perhaps that 'escape' isn't into something new, but a quest to find something long since gone, to retreat back into something missing from one's own past.

It isn't until well into the film – as a storytelling choice, this is not insignificant – that we learn Emma is in fact Russian. She tells Antonio she does not remember what she was; she has had no real identity since becoming Italian. The film becomes a comment on the assimilation of dominant cultures and histories, at the expense of other important life experiences, due to male oppression and social tradition.

Emma's relationship with an outsider plays a significant role here. Even before any consummation has taken place, Emma's acceptance of Antonio is frowned upon, held as suspicious, not for reasons of a possible romantic connection, but simply because Antonio is a commoner, because – his skill as a chef notwithstanding – he is not up to the standards or traditions of the Recchis' lifestyle.

It is Emma's elderly counterpart, her husband's widowed mother-in-law, whose suspicion of Antonio is most fierce. Guadagnino complicates his depiction of class-based prejudice by adding age into the mix; Antonio's best friend in the film is Edoardo, Emma's youthful son whose love for the chef borders also on sexual lustfulness/curiosity. Edoardo in turn is under immense pressure to aspire to the family's past economic success; history plays a decisive role in binding one to one's class.

What makes I Am Love such the discovery it is is its sensitivity to these wider issues. This isn't a validation of a well-to-do woman's middle-aged neuroses – though it might be that too – but a deceptively nuanced exploration of class and exclusion.

Eleven years in the making, the film premiered at last year's Venice film festival, and was released in the UK on April 9. Having gone under the radar until now, Guadagnino will hopefully take the art-house circuit by storm with this latest project. With a confident control of complex material, aided by superlative cinematography by Yorick Le Saux and a stunning central performance from Swinton, he deserves to.

Dir: Luca Guadagnino | Year: 2009 | Country: Italy | Running Time: 120 mins approx

With: Tilda Swinton, Edoardo Gabbriellini, Flavio Parenti, Pippo Delbono, Marisa Berenson