February 18, 2011
**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:
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”
“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.”
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.”
There is one scene I admired in Somewhere:
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