Set at the turn of the millennium, I Am Love tells the story of the Recchis, a family dynasty of fabulously wealthy Milanese textile producers.  At its centre is Emma, an impeccably glamorous and dutiful wife to Tancredi, the family’s stuffed-shirt patriarch. Their son Edo wants to set up a restaurant with his friend Antonio, a talented young chef. Meanwhile, when Emma discovers that her daughter is having a secret affair with a woman, the revelation opens a door in her own mind through which forbidden passion soon springs.

Fittingly for a film about duty and desire, Sicilian director Luca Guadagnino combines exquisite sensuality with technical discipline and narrative restraint. Much of the film is a through-the-keyhole gawk at the seductive surface beauty of the Recchi lifestyle, the camera lingering over to-die-for furnishings, mouth-watering cuisine and superlative couture.

It’s deftly handled, the unforced pulse of the editing emulating the movements of the human eye. Whether soaking in the languor of the Recchi’s swish interiors, or outdoors, floating over bodies splashed in Mediterranean light, Guadagnino has given us a hymn to the pleasures of looking.

Perhaps chief among these is the pleasure of looking at Tilda Swinton, who in her twin role as producer spent 12 years bringing I Am Love to the screen. The actress is a transfixing presence, her beauty by turns luminous and austere, her features hinting at a fiercely guarded interior life.

In part I Am Love is a paean to a fading world, an Italy in which lines of class, gender and sexuality are clearly drawn, and beautiful things and the values that go with them are passed down through generations. An impending buy-out of the Recchi empire signals that this world is giving way to a new order in which global financial markets hold sway.

Yet despite its nostalgia, in I Am Love tradition overshadows the present and stifles the future: Emma’s gilded-cage existence has robbed her of her real self.  In particular, the film seems concerned withthe deadening effect of the family on Italian life, as well as with bourgeois hypocrisy, symbolised by the Recchi’s past collaboration with the Mussolini regime. Though its sympathies lie ultimately with the forces of renewal, the film’s dénouement shows the high price paid by those who decide to break free.

That the climax feels somewhat contrived is less an indictment than a reflection of the subtlety of what comes before. As for the rest, it’s a wonderfully absorbing lesson in style, grace and understatement.

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