william steig drawing

February 18, 2011
Kartina Richardson

I Am Love vs. Somewhere

**Watch my “Ebert Presents” segment on “I Am Love” here**

In Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love Tilda Swinton plays Emma Recchi, a Russian woman who marries into a wealthy Italian family and finds herself moving (somewhat unwillingly) into the role of matriarch. Dissatisfied with a soulless life of planning dinner parties, Emma finds love with a younger man, one with the earthiness she needs to remedy her stale aristocratic life. Now this is a movie about many things: family, legacy, death, birth, incest, and definitions of love and loneliness among them, but what I like most about the film is its size. I Am Love isn’t a movie that minimizes itself. Though we associate this kind of grandeur with melodramas of old, mainly pre-1970‘s, given the current popular styles of filmmaking, which often cast the theatrical and poetic as false, Guadagnino’s decision to make a grand, operatic film is actually a radical one.

I recently read a review of the film by one of my favorite film critics, The New Yorker’s Richard Brody. Even when I disagree with Brody’s thoughts on a movie, I am always intrigued by his reasons. Brody was not especially fond of Guadagnino’s film. He tore it a new one. But what fascinated me this time was that the reasons he gave were the exact reasons I hated Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, a movie he loved. And Brody loved Somewhere for the reasons I loved I Am Love. They are two films with relatively similar stories (dissatisfied elite person finds happiness in the unexpected), done in completely opposing styles. Their titles even represent this contradiction: I AM LOVE vs. somewhere.

And as I thought more about I Am Love I thought more about what it represented to me and how my love for it is very much related to my dislike of Somewhere.

About I Am Love Brody states:

“There’s no point to speculating whether Guadagnino is capable of imagining his characters’ inner lives and the diverse forms of their expression; in any case, he clearly has no interest in doing so. Just now, tooling around a bit online, I found the following nugget of wisdom in an interview with the director, in Time Out New York:

‘The class we describe is beyond decadence already; they’re like frozen statues. This is like a George Romero movie: They’re dead and they believe that they’re still alive!’

In its attitude toward its characters and toward sex, “I Am Love” is a vapid and demagogic entertainment, a work of mere and minor sensation that drums its subjects vulgarly and unequivocally.”

Replace Guadagnino with Coppola, and there are my reasons for hating Somewhere.

Brody praised Somewhere as “conjuring the tension of banality and wonder that is the essence of the movie” , and that “More than any filmmaker in Hollywood, Coppola looks around and films what she sees; it’s that forthright affirmation of what a camera is made for that enables her to reach such heights of inner experience.”

Here Brody and I agree. Coppola does film what she sees, but her vision is limited to exactly that: What she sees. It stops immediately at the recognition of the mundane, the rote. As though a line has been drawn in her head and she dares not cross. It is exactly this examination of  the “tension between banality and wonder” that I dislike  in Coppola’s work, and many indie films these days.

The banality of the surface is an attractive and easy subject to explore successfully for those wishing to create art, but who, for whatever reason, are unable to think about the metaphysical ideas that make great film great films. This is because they have vulgarized trying. They are minimizing. For lack of better articulation at the moment, I will awkwardly call it the “Countersignaling” movement or aesthetic.

In Coppola’s films, and films that share a similar style (I hesitate to use the term mumblecore because it’s farther reaching than that), trying is not only vulgar but unenlightened; trying to be sexy, fancy, feminine, masculine, or successful. Trying to do anything big is bad. In a small way this is good; there is no shortage of awful hollywood blockbusters that promote ridiculously plastic ideas that confine. But whereas Dogme 95 opposed this in a brilliant way with films of great emotional intensity (Festen) and complex ideas (Idioten), these movies do not. Theirs is an adolescent rebellion. Offering scraggly hair and skinned knees in opposition to their mother’s chignon. T- shirts and torn shoes vs. their father’s suits, the presence of Chris Pontius vs. anyone else and saying little about why.

Countersignaling is an aesthetic unique to the very privileged. Of the young, white, educated, liberal, upper middle/middle class. It isn’t a celebrated attitude of poor Americans, or the children of immigrants, or Americans of color of any economic class. It isn’t an attractive aesthetic to those who have already been minimized by the world and fight against that to assert their value.

But as much as I dislike the aesthetic I do understand why it exists. Countersignaling is a reaction to plasticity. Money grants automatic importance and for many liberal, artistic, educated folk, that privilege leads to discomfort and guilt. But a caving to that guilt instead of true examination, turns the artist’s work into a constant minimizing. The result then is false: If it were actual minimization the film itself would not exist. The very act of making something is, to to varying degrees, asserting your voice, asserting your importance, trying.  So the film is reaching. Reaching in every way for diffidence (shot composition, costume, music, casting, etc) when real diffidence is not actually there.

The mundanity of our realities and the moments we escape numbness are actually extremely interesting. Appealing because they have both light and dark sides, but Coppola only makes small comments on the surface of these moments. She never delves deeper. I don’t want to see characters sweetly discovering and experiencing these moments. I’d much rather see characters creating escape like Kit in Terrence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands. When Kit interrupts the routine of his work by standing on top of the dead cow, it says it all. From an older post on Badlands:

Kit and Holly have no regard for their reality. Or maybe they care deeply about their reality, which is to have no reality. The murders and the plot itself become almost irrelevant. It is about the magic.

Kit & Holly have no real routine. No schedule. No responsibilities. There is nothing to remind them of time. As such there is nothing to remind them of  their mortality. They live in a tree house. Like Peter Pan. Like Lost Boys. They exist above us all. They have created their own timeless, magical world in which nothing and no one exists except themselves and one another.  This is why Kit loves spontaneity. He moves with time, and so in some convoluted way it seems as though he has more control over it. When we are moving, when we are spontaneous, time no longer matters. Sit down and don’t do anything for 10 minutes. You see? All there is is time now.

Go stand in the corner.

You have probably never stood in any corner of the room you’re in for who goes around standing in corners? It’s a strange feeling. To realize you’ve never been in that corner of your room, never seen your room from exactly that spot. It opens little boxes of life that we’ve packed away and forgotten. It is a tiny ripple in your reality. It is freeing. This is the closest thing we have to magic. That’s right. Standing in the corner of your room. It’s a tiny stupid break in your reality, but it’s a break nonetheless. It is an interruption of time.

Kit knew about this long ago. This is why he went around standing on cows.

This is similar to the fantasy-world-building that Johnny and Cleo seek to do in Somewhere, only interesting. Interesting because Malick doesn’t turn away from blackness. The recognition of that darkness is important. These small moments (both sweet and strange) are the product of tiny imperceptible struggles to escape. In all struggles there is violence. There is darkness. But Coppola’s characters, and the characters in similar films do not really reflect this. They are sad sweet people, good people underneath it all, but boring one dimensional people who move within a very narrow spectrum of pastel emotions.

Brody calls Somewhere “one of the most radical films ever made in Hollywood, if the root of the cinema is the conjuring of inner life through outer particulars.” I say, in 2011 the truly radical American indie film could be one that does not see intensity of emotion as vulgar and the theatrical as unable to reveal truth.

I Am Love is in some way a reaction to this, or perhaps I would just like to think it is. The film has its flaws (I wasn’t a fan of the long back to nature sex scene) but it dares to be grand. The movie was great, but what excited me most was what it represented; it was large in idea, emotion, and execution. From the magnitude of its title, to its aristocratic poster, it spits in the face of countersignaling.

Brody says it best, (even if he’s talking about the wrong movie here):

“Most of the drama, such as it is, concerns their fluctuating emotions and moods, and Coppola Guadagnino conjures them with a calm, clear, contemplative attention to their behavior, their surroundings, their very presence. The entire film seems internalized: at the same time as the shots show a reality accessible to all, they seem wrenched from the psyches of the characters. Which is to say that it’s an intensely emotional film”

“The emotion is evoked not by the actors emoting intensely but by exquisite, even preternatural, control of tone, mood, and detail.”

“I emerged from the theatre feeling as if I had just been cruising around in a high-powered vehicle for an hour and a half, experiencing a strangely original ride through familiar grounds, a peculiar and delightful blend of the grippingly concrete and the dreamily abstracted.”

Guadagnino speaks through the language of classical cinema: There is sweeping camera movement, careful shot composition, silences that magnify the god awful presence of time, and the careful use of color and costume. It is through costume that Guadagnino asserts the film’s largeness most obviously.

What can by mistaken as simply a nostalgia for olden days, is in fact a longing for timelessness. All characters are dressed in simple clothes that prevent them from being identified with any particular time period. Belonging to one year is small. Belonging to all is large. The film’s costume also display Guadagnino’s careful use of color. The autumnal tones are frequently used to underline connections between characters. Emma has a special relationship with her daughter Betta and in several scenes the two wear colors previously worn by the other. In this scene Betta wears tan while her mother wears burgandy:

And in the previous scene here Emma wears tan, while in the next room Betta wears burgandy:

Ida the housekeeper also has a close relationship with the family members, especially Emma’s son. And here the orange juice she pours matches shirt.

Everything in the Recchi home is in it’s place. Even the leaves on the plant are the precise shade of green to compliment the walls and furniture. This kind of extremely planned composition could be too heavy handed. It could ruin the story, but it doesn’t and this is for two reasons:


The first is the earth shattering person that is Tilda Swinton. She is the very necessary ingredient. Like the addition of vinegar to something that’s too creamy, that needs a tang to counteract the richness. Swinton brings a sharpness that prevents the movie from straying too far into melodrama. This is because she is magnificently unusual. No one, man or woman is more sexually exciting than Swinton. Her allure cannot be defined. It is raw without any accessories. Ageless, sexless, and has no boundaries. She is androgynous, ethereal, womanly and reptilian all at once.

Hers isn’t a conventional appeal, but that’s precisely why it’s necessary in a film of such classical grandeur and drama. The film remains expansive while she makes it real. It should be noted that this isn’t just the accidental product of good casting. Guadagnino and Swinton developed the film together for a decade. The two are organic to one another. They are wrapped around each other.


Like this carefully organized household, I Am Love is unabashedly built on careful choices; clear decisions that indicate an idea unites all components of the film. And Guadagnino wants us to be aware of this.

“Discipline is disliked in Italy. And I think this is a very disciplined movie. It’s very consistent in keeping a sort of rigour in achieving its goals. It’s good quality, you know? It’s like leather.”

– Guadagnino

There is a reason for this shot and that one. For that dress and that light. We might not understand intellectually what Guadagnino’s idea is, but we don’t need to. We understand it emotionally. The more certain a director is in his beliefs regarding both life and artistic theory, the more honest his choices will be to the story (this is why Bresson’s are some of the most truthful films ever made). When there is truth there is no reaching. Reaching destroys movies because reaching is emptiness. You are grasping for something that is not there.

It is the risk of reaching that scares filmmakers like Coppola, and this is boring and cowardly. It’s not easy to come out into the world with something big. Present a small idea, and you only risk being revealed as a small fool. If you’ve got the nerve to have a big idea people can accuse you of being a big fool. But who the hell cares? I’d much rather see 100 people trying to think about big things and failing than 100 people saying small things successfully.

“I have no problem with authorship. No ego problem. No problem with my virility.”

– Guadagnino

There is one scene I admired in Somewhere:

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  1. (Edited to add missing quote)

    “It’s not easy to come out into the world with something big. Present a small idea, and you only risk being revealed as a small fool. If you’ve got the nerve to have a big idea people can accuse you of being a big fool. But who the hell cares? I’d much rather see 100 people trying to think about big things and failing than 100 people saying small things successfully.”

    This. Always.

    I saw I Am Love last summer. What struck me was the grandeur and the scale. It definitely was a throwback to those Douglas Sirk-esque films of the 50s and 60s but it was done without a shred of irony or a self-deprecating wink. It was a completely earnest film and it was actually quite thrilling to see on the big screen.

    As for Sofia Coppolla…I don’t know. The only movie of hers I have ever truly enjoyed was The Virgin Suicides. I never cared for Lost in Translation, or Marie Antoinette and Somewhere didn’t seem all that exciting to me either.

    Anyway, this is a wonderful essay. I enjoy your writing so much and, at the risk of sounding corny, it’s very inspirational for me.

  2. Wow, pretty epic write-up. Kudos (found you via Ebert’s Tweet).

    I haven’t seen Somewhere yet; came and went in a flash at my local arthouse. I did review I Am Love here though: http://tinyurl.com/6klhzlh.

    As a Visconti fan, you might find this comparison between I Am Love and The Leopard of interest: http://tinyurl.com/683f2yl

    Good to discover you!

  3. I would like to think that both approaches are equally capable of cinematic success. However, I tend to take greater pleasure from the quiet and understated methods of directors like Sofia Coppola. There is so much more satisfaction in inaudible whispers and lost glances than there is in grand gestures.

    As Roger Ebert once said, “It is often better to wonder what a character is thinking than to know.”

  4. I think you mean Chris Pontius, not Bam Margera.

  5. Hello Ms. Richardson — thanks much for the insightful, lengthy, and poignant ode to two dissimilar films that end up being a lot like one another the more you consider the implications of love and distance. I found your post mentioned by Mr. Ebert on twitter and followed the link like the proverbial horse to water and am glad I did. Just when I thought my reviews were a tad on the long side I was refreshed to find your article and look forward to reading more.

    I’m with you. I found I Am Love a treat to the senses, even the sleep deprived ones, and while I can’t comment directly on your wonderful analysis of these two films, I can say that I enjoyed the visit and will look forward to more.

    I second Mp.IDFILM above – heading over to that site now.


  6. I appreciate your contrasting of two films I find annoying in equal measure for different reasons. 

    I also appreciate I Am Love’s cinematography and the use of music, but I despair that so many reviewers don’t pick up on the contradictions and lapses of this portrait of the Milanese bourgiousie. I’d like to mention a few points.

    Firstly, Swinton’s character’s moaning about how much of her cultural identity she had to leave behind. The facts don’t support this. A key sign of forced assimilation is the annihilation of someone’s language. But here, not only does she speak Russian freely, the language has been passed on to the son, and she speaks to him in it without being reprimanded. Now perhaps he was permitted
    to learn Russian because it’s good for business, but nevertheless it would suggest she’s not exactly the oppressed ethnic minority figure.

    Food is also a key cultural symbol and often battleground. This ‘stuck up’ bourgeois (not aristocratic, though I know what you mean) Italian family have allowed one of her favorite Russian dishes to colonize their table at important gatherings. To me this is a very generous gesture, especially given the traditionally xenophobic culinary attitudes of most Italians to outside flavours and traditions.

    Nowhere does the husband in the film seem quite as beastly as Tilda’s character suggests he is. Yeah he’s quiet, a little bloodless, got stuff on his mind maybe – and you might easily fall out of love with him but…I’m not sure – once he is aware of her betrayal and give  the circumstances – that his behaviour is particularly harsh towards her. Or represents the harshness of his class.

    If Tilda’s character is actually over-reacting to this family, or over-inflating their failings and her misery, the film seems unaware of it. I.e. It doesn’t present her complaints as subjective and separate from its own agenda. It owns her complaints. This is my problem with it. I have nothing against this story if it’s the story of a lonely woman who is falling in love, but the way the film conflates this with a critique of the bourgeoisie is not well thought out.

    I differ slightly with you on wardrobe – it is not so much designed to be timeless, as reflective of a certain ‘timelessness’ present in the clothes of the upper middle classes, a kind of people who disdain trends and seek to be above the vulgar lower classes by appearing tasteful in a way that might be described as ‘classic’. It’s like an Italian version of preppy.

    Lastly, and this is not really important unless you speak Italian, Tilda’s Italian is not the Italian of a woman who has lived in Italy for so long. It’s the Italian of a British actress.

  7. I found this page via Ebert’s twitter stream too and decided to read it for a lark since I liked ‘I Am Love’ so much. While your review revealed certain things about the movie I had missed, what really amazed me (and got me to spontaneously tweet about your awesome review) is what you were able to so articulately describe as “the countersignaling/aesthetic movement”. My biggest gripe about indie movies, which is the genre I tend to watch the most, is that many fall prey to that effect. It is almost a “gimmick” effect really – delve into the surface level on a few non-mainstream trends, give your film a whimsical/this-is-how-things-are-and-I-don’t-care-to-question-the-status-quo tone, throw in a couple other quirks no matter how disjointed and jarring the execution, and voila, you have a small/mid-budget indie film with reasonably good chances of getting made. I’ve generally been met by a weird stare whenever I ran into someone that loved “Lost in Translation” and found out that I didn’t.

    Bottomline – it is thinking like this that is needed to ensure good movies get made more. Thank you. You are very articulate and I enjoyed your thought process and writing very much. I just started following you on twitter and look forward to some more good reads.

  8. Sheila Keenan

    I haven’t seen either movie yet, but the stills from I Am Love reminded me of Douglas Sirk’s films (as Danielle mentioned in an earlier comment) and his use of colour.

    Fantastic essay on both films, I always enjoy your insightful writing.

  9. This is a very prettily written piece, but it’s weakened by contradictions, weak arguments and several typos. In summary, you say reaching is bad because it is a sign that truth is not being told, but then you criticize Coppola for not daring to reach.

    It’s interesting that you heavily emphasize the socioeconomics of “countersignaling” filmmakers with a cluck of the tongue, but indirectly glorify the influence of wealth on I Am Love’s content and creators. Perhaps your point is that privileged filmmakers should flaunt what they’ve got. Take pride in Prada.

    I am a fan of both Somewhere and I Am Love, although I find the former, for all its smallness, to be a braver film emotionally. I second Brody’s every motion.

  10. Joseph Wallace

    I loved both films. I also loved Badlands. I think I just love cinema.

    Do you have any links to the films you make yourself?

  11. I’ve been wanting to see both of these films for a long time now. It’s a shame they didn’t play at my local theater. I guess I’ll have to rent them.
    By the way, good job on the blog! It’s terrific!

  12. Interesting points! I liked both movies, but I confess, I found it impossible to review Somewhere because I really couldn’t see anything more than what was on the screen. When a movie is entirely based on subtext, it feels a bit like explaining a joke to someone who doesn’t understand when you try to talk about it.

    Contrasted with I Am Love, which I basically ran to my computer to write about (it’s probably my favorite review I’ve written: http://theoncominghope.blogspot.com/2010/12/i-am-love.html).

    But as much as I loved the movie, I cannot get past the silly melodrama in the last 15 minutes; it was implausible and almost Greco-Roman in its overt moralizing. But even that was saved by the over the top triumph in the final 2 minutes.

  13. Salvo Triest.

    What will always stay with me about I Am Love is the ending; when I saw it, I went so far as to wonder whether Guadadnino inteneded to create a sense of ‘heightened’ emotional distance from the Tilda Swinton character that would run completely counterintuitive in a film this grandiose in it’s elegance. When I watched Tilda in that final scene, I felt as though I should have been moved to tears. Instead, I watched with my hand over my mouth as I though I was an onlooker of some kind of car wreck or breakdown. I’ve read synopsises of this film that explain everything rather too neatly; that endings are new beginnings, that life culminates in one big ethereal ‘poof’ when it’s over. In other words, when life ends, it ends in one, big sweeping stroke of a Creative power’s brush.

    Ms. Richardson, in this post, talks about how big and daring this film is. I can’t argue otherwise. The ending proves this scientifically by putting the stroke of Creative power to maximum use. The ending is the kind that has been tested, time and time again, in the minds of not just the David Leans, but, I’d (naively, perhaps) imagine, filmmakers such as (gasp!) Sophia Coppola, to produce a kind of effect that’s tried-and-true when it comes to moving the audience at the very end. It’s the kind of effect that’s supposed to make the movie, and especially it’s characters, linger in the viewer’s mind for as long as possible. I’d even go out on a limb to argue thatthe ending of Coppopla’s The Virgin Suicides (which I went from admiring to disliking the second time around) creates the same effect of the ending in I Am Love, though with infinitely greater minimalism.

    In both Love and Suicides, when the credits role, the characters stay with you not because they are larger than life, but because they are far more easily swallowed up by existence in one gulp than other people. Almost every character in Suicides is completely unknowable, and beneath that numbness develops a steady, if understated, uneasiness, but because everyone in this film is unknowable, there’s no sense on the viewer’s part that there’s something wrong with them if they didn’t empathize with their plight.

    In I Am Love, Tilda Swinton is present throughout the entire film. We meet her family. We know her circumstances; how when she immigrated from Russia to Italy, she stopped being Russian, and became Italian with a seeming snap of the fingers. We even see just how woozy she gets from tasting the younger man Antonio’s cooking for the first time as she falls so intensely for him, courtesy of Guadignino’s extraordinary use of the camera to convey this character’s point of view. We even see what her dreams consist of visually depicted for us.

    What’s striking (and off-putting) about this is that the Tilda Swinton character dreams only in snapshots instead of narrative, and that the snapshots in her dreams are of strongly concrete things such as two male hands holding a bush of grapes. I understand that this image is also probably symbolic of her deep desire for Antonio, but, to me, this represents within this character a talent for embodying her personal desires at the expense of her personhood. In the imagination of this character, her feelings, however deep they may be, are seldom if ever represented in human form. Instead they take the form of the objects that give this character the earthy pleasure she seeks and thus guides her heart whereever it will take it.

    It’s almost as though in this film there lies no middle boundary between one kind of objective experience of the world, the aristocratic, and another, the earthy (and even the earthiness of the earthy experience has a kind of naturalistic regalness to it (the back to nature scene, for instance)) until this is interrupted by the familial relations between the Tilda Swinton character and her children and, yes, even her maid, as well as the story line about how what will happen to the family buisness now that the Patriarch Recchi has passed on. What’s problematic about these is that, while they do give us, sufficient, sometimes even great reason to care about all of the characters, the themes and challenges that drive the emotional lives of all the characters in the movie are just as overly universal as they are universally timeless.There’s no room for the idiosyncracy of experience in the lives of these characters.

    It’s not that these charcters are types. Every last one of them is and feels very real. It’s that the reality of the world they inhabit is so hyper-sensualized that it leaves little room for the characters to show or develop more personality throughout the movie. In other words, the physical environments the characters in I Am Love exist in sometimes seem to be depicted as a means of upstaging the inner lives of these people so that the viewer is never quite sure if there is anything distinct from the universal going through any character’s mind.

    So, back to the ending of I Am Love; given this conundrum of environment often standing in for, and thus sometimes superseding the inner life of the characters, it felt as the though the Tilda Swinton character was a representation of a universally acknowledged understanding of how life itself runs in cycles; things come into existence, they exist, than they soon cease to. When the movie ends, it ends with the sense that the Tilda Swinton character is disappeering from existend in a sweeping, elegantly grandiose fashion. At this point, even Mrs. Recchi’s husband tells her that she doesn’t exist.

    One thing that is notable is how Ms. Richardson mentions the timelessness of the dress as being antithetical to the notion of nostalgia. To me, this does represent a kind of nostaligia for the belief that existence for ever; a belief that evaporates at the end like the Tilda Swinton character as one truly comes of age.



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