Buttonholed by an eager Guadagnino 16 years ago, and one of the film's co-producers (the two made a short documentary called Tilda Swinton: The Love Factory in 2002), Swinton plays Emma Recchi, the unhappy, increasingly isolated Russian wife of Milanese industrialist Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and the mother of three adult children. She dutifully fulfills her haute-bourgeoisie wifely duties: studying a dinner-party seating chart with Talmudic scrutiny; obeying her imperious mother-in-law (Visconti touchstone Marisa Berenson, perfectly cast); running errands in fantastic salmon-colored Jil Sander finery, her hair perfectly coiffed. A tiny frisson registers when she meets Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), the chef friend of her son, Edo (Flavio Parenti). The unfulfilled matriarch thaws completely after she eats a plate of his prawns with ratatouille and sweet-and-sour sauce; clandestine visits to Sanremo follow, where Emma's chignon unravels and she and Antonio do it al fresco. Edo discovers their secret, something bad happens and Emma frees herself from uxorial enslavement.
Feverishly pulling you in with its operatic sweep and its appeal to the primary senses — the bombastic John Adams score, the opulent old-world interiors, Yorick Le Saux's lush cinematography, meal preparation and consumption as multiple orgasm — Guadagnino's film, which he co-wrote with three others, also earnestly attempts to overthrow sclerotic Continental patriarchy. There's nothing especially novel, of course, about exploring the soul-crushing emptiness of marriage to a titan of industry. But I Am Love may be the first film in which the lonely heroine finds inspiration in her child's lesberation. Emma's daughter, Betta (Alba Rohrwacher), first seen with long tresses and making out with her boyfriend, finds lady love while at art school in London — shown as slurpy, stringy-spittled kisses — and tells Mom all about it: "It's not a passing thing, I'm sure" (I Am Lez). Betta's confession causes something to shift in Emma, her own carnal curiosity slowly rising to the surface; the mother-daughter twinning is further underscored by their newly shorn hair.
The signs and symbols of Emma's emancipation may be ridiculously hamhanded, but that blunt obviousness is counterbalanced by Swinton's delicate, deft performance. Learning not just Italian but how to speak the language with a Russian accent for her role, Swinton plays Emma as a woman further imprisoned by linguistic impasses. At Recchi family gatherings, she appears nearly aphasic: "When I moved to Milan, I stopped being Russian," Emma tells Antonio after some vigorous rutting. Swinton magically conveys two states of being — as both a spectral presence who has willed herself to simply not be, only appear, and as a person of voracious appetites — her physicality transforming depending on whether Emma is trapped at home, making small talk at a business dinner, or sniffing trees with Antonio.
For all its corny social studies, I Am Love never forgets the lust that drives its narrative. Swinton and Gabbriellini make an extremely foxy couple, her translucent flesh complemented by his dark hair and beard. Their assignations are all action, little talk; when Guadagnino focuses solely on the primal, the effect is spellbinding. Only the words get in the way.