Sunday, July 25, 2010

Vanished Essence

Sight and Sound magazine spent a big chunk of its May issue on the Italian film I Am Love, including cover space for its star Tilda Swinton. Editor Nick James wrote about the reaction at last year’s Toronto festival: “Several people who saw the film there felt it had a certain quality they hadn’t experienced for some time – the impalpable flavor of some vanished cinematic essence…espousing a romanticism that has perhaps become unfashionable.” The designated reviewer, Catherine Wheatley, more or less acknowledged all of this, but found the film easier to admire than to love: “For all its overwhelming sensuality, it always keeps us at one remove, with the end effect being somehow rather bloodless…I Am Love is a bit too accomplished, too self-assured and, dare I say it, a little frigid…” The response elsewhere has been similar: mostly accolades, but with a fair number of shrugs.

I Am Love

I think that’s just about right. The film reminds you (if you were aware of it in the first place) of the thinness of so much modern cinema. It’s a random comparison, but the movie I happened to see just before it was Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, from last year. Lee is himself an acclaimed, even Oscar-winning director; some would say he’s one of the world’s best. And everyone is allowed an occasional misstep. But a truly great director would never make something so shallow and slack. The film, depicting the turmoil surrounding the classic rock festival, certainly has interesting things going on in the background. But there’s not an iota of personality or texture to it. It feels like an assembly, never like a piece of cinematic writing. Even with much better films than Taking Woodstock, you often find yourself responding mainly to a general fluidity and taste and facility with character, to the smooth invisibility of the cinematic apparatus. This is good to the extent it’s pleasant to lose yourself in the experience. But if great directing were marked only by its ability to become unnoticed, it’d be hard to maintain any hopes that film might be an art, not merely a craft.

I Am Love is full-bloodedly a piece of art. Its director, Luca Guadagnino, exhibits an immense sensitivity to surfaces and emotions and places and connections. From Taking Woodstock you get the sense (rightly or wrongly) that Ang Lee basically stands there in the middle of the big Hollywood infrastructure and tries to keep up, barely capable of sensing the possibilities of what’s around him. I Am Love, in extreme contrast, feels like the product of time and reflection and conviction: you feel it would be done this way, or not at all (and indeed, its director and star waited for a decade to make the film). It focuses on a wealthy Italian family; the dying grandfather passes control of his manufacturing business to his son and grandson. While they debate the direction to take, the grandson also helps a friend with his dream of opening an artisanal restaurant. His mother, played by Swinton, falls under the spell of the food, and then under the spell of the man.

The World Outside

The film evokes a grand European tradition of family dramas set in elegant settings, with the sensation of holding at bay the world beyond. There’s a passing reference to a possible murky past, and more extended ones to the changing face of commerce, but these aren’t central to the film’s preoccupations. Swinton’s character, Emma, is at first recessively elegant, keeping all the pieces together, but suppressing her inner life. Her son becomes engaged to a woman who’s clearly primed to continue this tradition (if more aggressively so); at around that same time, Emma’s daughter tells her she’s gay, something that seems to facilitate Emma’s own delirious liberation (the movie codes this, in one of numerous touches that would seem clunky if orchestrated with less conviction, by having them both dress down drastically).

It’s fascinating and impressive from beginning to end, overflowing with concepts and felicities, both grand and subtle. But despite all of that, I have to admit I’m in the group with reservations. I wouldn’t say I found it frigid, but ultimately it just isn’t important enough to be categorized at the highest level. The old masters overflowed with the “vanished cinematic essence” James talked about – hell, they invented it! – but their best films were about something more sociologically or thematically or psychologically important than I Am Love: however much Guadagnino electrifies the cinematic space, that space remains inherently rather narrow. Put it this way - your enjoyment of the film doesn’t depend that much on having any knowledge of, or opinion about, the world outside what it shows you.


You can also see Tilda Swinton, in a very different mode, in last year’s Julia; it was never released here, but it’s out on DVD and on cable. She plays a hopeless alcoholic and all-round mess who’s approached by a woman to help kidnap her son from the paternal grandfather’s rigid custody. Julia ends up going it alone, transporting the kid into Mexico and demanding a $2 million ransom.

The film is somewhat reminiscent of John Cassavetes’ Gloria, which also had a tough-talking woman on the run with a young boy, and at certain moments Swinton seems to be uncannily channeling Gena Rowlands. In the earlier film though, Gloria was the real thing, a tough lady who knew some of the ins and outs; she didn’t seek out the situation, but when it fell on top of her, she went with it. Julia appears to have little experience of anything except screwing up, and has to learn the basics of crime and self-preservation as she goes along; she does pretty well, but even at the point of greatest risk, drops the ball disastrously by spending the night with a casual pick-up.

If she grows during the course of the film, it’s through action, not self-reflection; whatever it is she doesn’t want to acknowledge in herself, violence and momentum turn out to be an effective way of suppressing it, at least temporarily. The movie, executed with vivid, wicked hard edges, is remarkably rounded and alert (it also has elements of extreme black comedy – a parable of a drunk’s messy attempts at opening up the big time) and Swinton provides as complete and complex a performance as you could possibly imagine. It’s co-written and directed by Erick Zonca, who made a great impression with The Dreamlife of Angels in 1998, but has been quiet for the last decade. It’s a surprise to see him back in this vein, but he doesn’t seem to have acquired any hint of rust or uncertainty. It’s very different from I Am Love, but it too – undeniably – is a piece of art.

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