Thursday, June 3, 2010

ND/NF: I am love: An affair with Tilda Swinton

Tilda Swinton gives an spectacular performance in this Italian film by the young director Luca Guadagnino. Her Italian is probably not the best, but since she's playing a russian immigrant who married into the family of a textile factory empire, it's probably not very important in any case. This film, as all the others I watched in the 2010 version of ND/NF was a film that had me pondering over it for many an hour (partly the reason why I have not posted about them until now, two months after the festival). I am Love is an outdated sort of film. It's a story of love, deceit, desire and lust. And there are plenty of those. In Hollywood and outside. But perhaps it is much more than that. There are lots of things happening in the background, things that are said, and in my opinion, others equally interesting that are left unsaid.

The Recchi family is all you would expect of an upper class Milano family to be, and to look like. They have an air of entitlement, but they are respectful, mindful of their wealth, sophisticated, chic, and absolutely beautiful. The third generation, Edoardo, Elisabetta and Gianluca, are three young angels. They are stunning and very nice to look at. But they have their share of problems. The story of "Io sono l'amore" revolves around Emma (Tilda Swinton) and the infatuation that she starts developing over one of her son's Edoardo's friends, Antonio, who is an adept chef. Food takes in important role in the movie (Is that supposed to be very italian?, I don't know what to think...). There's cooking food, and enjoying food, and eating it, possibly, becomes a metaphor for consumming the phallus and for knowing that which is not oneself, for bridging boundaries, but it also has a taste of hedonism.

Yes, this family is the epitome of hedonism. They are the burgeoisie. Rich, powerful, sophisticated, the makers of culture. They are the embodiment of what society should be like. Families should be patriarchal, the power passed down from grandfather to fathers and sons (and this actually happens in the movie, when, grandpapa Recchi gives his son Tancredi and Edoardo ownership and control over the family business to continue on the dynasty, with the appropriate speech, of course), women should be pieces of furniture, adequately smart, of course, and beautiful, but they operate in the pheriphery of business, and they don't quite care much for it. Not that I care about business either. But if my family seems to be doing quite well in this whole textile company things, whether man or woman, I'd care to at least make sure that it continues, I suppose.

The only remark where one sees that women actually care to even comment on the business is when, after the company is passed down to Tancredi and Edoardo, Tancredi and his other son Gianluca decide that the company should not longer exist as tradition has perhaps set way and are trying to sell off the company so that it will become some sort of financial conglomerate and make the Recchis richer than ever. The person overseeing the process is a British Sikh, played by Waris Alhuwalia (who I have not seen playing main roles, but seems to me a very decent actor), and I point this out because I think it is very important for the movie that it is a British Sikh, and not anyone else who is assisting them in this financial move. The remark, to go back to the original point here, is made by Elisabetta who after hearing from worried Edoardo about what Tancredi and Gianluca are doing, just says "Well, we'll be even richer than before." Not without its mark of sarcasm. Edoardo loves his company, the legacy which was placed under his care, loves a particular way of life. One of the scenes features him, walking with his wife, around the company that he loves so much, mingling with workers somewhat, but at one point says something just fantastic, "Oh my grandfather used to eat in the cafeteria, with the workers, to make them feel as if he belonged with them." Right. He didn't. It was a charade. Like this whole movie seems. A charade of wealth, of money, of power. A charade about to be broken, dismantled, and a way of life to be exposed.

Two of the instances of the destruction of the burgeoisie way of life, of the idyll depicted in the movie, were already mentioned (Emma's infatuation with Edoardo's friend, and the selling of the textile company). One of the other moments where the perfect, idyllic, adorable milano family breaks apart is when Elisabetta confesses to her mother that she's gay, and is in love with another woman. Emma ends up cheating on her husband, and the infatuation with Antonio leads to a secret relationship between the two. Antonio does not want Edoardo, who has just financed Antonio's new restaurant in the outskirts of Milan, to know about his affair with Emma, and Emma, of course, does not want anyone in her family to know about Antonio.

Something very important to point out, and perhaps the foreshadowing moment for the emplotment of the movie happens when grandpapa Recchi is about to give the speech where he will pass down the company's control to Edoardo and Tancredi. It is the grandfather's birthday and Elisabetta, who had promised some of her artwork as a gift, gives her grandfather a photograph she has taken. Her grandfather does not seem very pleased, and asked her why she didn't paint a picture, and ends up dismissing the photograph and thanking Elisabetta and telling her that she still owes him a painting. Old art against new art.

The climax of the movie develops when Antonio prepares an important dinner at the Recchi Mansion for the Recchi family and Mr. Kubelkian (Ahluwalia), and Antonio makes the family a soup (again, food is very important!) that he has learned to make from Emma, revealing to Edoardo (the only one who catches on) his relationship with Edoardo's mother. Edoardo realizes instantly, looks at his mother and walks away from the table, shocked. Emma runs after him, and tries to speak to him. Edoardo is furious, disappointed, confused. They are speaking right outside the house, near a fountain pool, and in a freak accident, when Edoardo pulls away from his mother, he trips and falls hitting his head on the pool. Edoardo dies in the hospital, leaving behind a pregnant wife. It is not clear what is going on, or why Edoardo reacted exactly the way he did, but there had been a sexual tension built up between the two friends (Edoardo and Antonio), especially in Edoardo's looks toward Antonio, and although it is left unsaid, one can imagine that Edoardo was in love with Antonio. His resilience to let go of the past, let of go of his family's business legacy, becomes his resilience to accept himself, to accept the love that he clearly had for Antonio (Antonio probably loved him too...when Edoardo was getting married, Antonio didn't look too happy).

Perhaps the movie is some sort of analogy for Italian society. Not sure. A society that in the hands of Prime Minister Berlusconi (and AC Milan's owner) has been notorious for its nonacceptance of others, such as foreigners, and for its extreme right wing conservatism. It's perhaps too much to conclude, as my knowledge of Italian politics and culture is very limited. But as an outsider, this is my small commentary.

What's very interesting about this movie is that the relationship with those "others", with that "difference" that ultimately breaks down the Recchi dynasty is not absolutely clear. In one instance, Edoardo's resilience for the financial move (now, you see my point about the British Sikh?) seems to be honorable, Elisabetta's fear of not being accepted by her father and family is expected, and Edoardo's love for Antonio is not even mentioned. So it is not clear if the movie wants to sponsor an acceptance of that which is not tradition, of that which is an "other", of that which is "difference" in the world, or if in fact, is advocating against it. At the end, the movie seems a big parody. A parody of a perfect 20th century rich, traditional, powerful italian family. But it's the 21st century and it's not clear if the movie has a particular stance. And that's what makes the movie fantastic. It keeps its ambiguity and by doing that, shows the difficulty about a postmodern, globalizing, capitalistic, gender and sexually mixed world. There are no clear answers, and the power of tradition is awfully strong.

Emma, after Edoardo's funeral and her confession of her love for Antonio, takes off for her house, packs up (with the help of her loving maid, who cries as she helps her pack) some of her belongings and runs away with all of her family in the living room watching as she goes. She embraces Elisabetta for a last time, who is happy to see her leave, finally free from the Recchis, from herself.

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