Tilda Swinton is an actor who possesses a rare quality that many of her contemporaries seem to lack. When she occupies a role, she fills it with her whole being. There is a fearlessness about her, a boldness, she doesn’t try to hide anything. Everything that she is feeling is present in the center of her face and in her body language. When she is in distress, it shows from head to toe. When she’s happy, her body relaxes and her face becomes warm and sunny. She is a full-bodied performer, and not just with her face or with her voice.
I first spotted her in her breathtaking performance in Sally Potter’s Orlando in which she plays a male 16th century English Duke who lives for 400 years and switches gender along the way. Ever since, she has been consistently good in every role she has played. In Luca Guadagnino’s “I Am Love”, she gives her single best performance as Emma Recchi, a Russian housewife, who has married into a wealthy Italian family and now resides within the house, but sadly, is distant from all the personal business that happens there.
The Recchi family are much like the Corleone’s in The Godfather in that the men run the family and handle all the business and the women reap the rewards, keep the mansion looking sparkling and fuss around after the servants. The family is a patriarchy, Italian businessmen who have made their fortune in textiles.
The movie opens with Emma and the servants getting the house ready for a major family event: The birthday party of the grandfather. All of the men are impeccably dressed in black suits and ties, the women in more inviting colors. The table is embossed with candles, making the vast dining room look like some strange cult meeting which, in a way, it is. Emma seems to stand apart from everyone. What we notice right away is a manner of discomfort about her. She knows her place and she keeps herself in line with the unspoken family order, but her face betrays the idea that she would rather be somewhere else. In fact, when she isn’t taking care of family business, she spaces herself away in her own private quarters upstairs.
There is something in Emma that is struggling to get free and most of I Am Love focuses on her getting there. Emma has in her heart, a deep and confined passion that doesn’t have an outlet. What Swinton does with this role is suggest a woman who is bursting at the seams to find a place for that passion.It begins when her daughter Elisabetta, a college student, comes out of the closet. Emma’s reaction is surprising. She doesn’t grow angry but surprisingly curious. Here is a young woman, away from home, who has discovered her own path to happiness. Something stirs in Emma and it leads her in the direction of Antonio, a friend of her son who was the chef for the grandfather’s birthday party. He is devilishly handsome and prepares food that is, for Emma, something erotic. There’s a moment when she eats some shrimp that he has prepared and devours it with orgasmic glee.
Later, of course, she will begin a love affair with Antonio at his small house in the hills. Their love scenes together are so beautifully shot and so wonderfully paced that I was stunned. It reminded me how many American movies have couples engaging in sex as if they are angry with each other or doing some kind of silly aerobic dance routine. Here the scenes between Emma and Antonio are leisurely paced, they take their time to build. There is a moment when the two meet in a sunlit room, he undresses her slowly. It is one of the most beautiful and erotic moments that I can remember. Then of course, they lie naked in the sun, their lovely bodies glistening. This is also one of the most gorgeously photographed movies that I have seen.
What also amazes me about those scenes is that they happen late in the film, the movie doesn’t jump to them to get to the nudity. There is a long build-up so that we feel for both the man and the woman. For Tilda Swinton, who has never given a single dull performance, this role is her best. She embodies a middle-aged woman who has spent her whole life sacrificing herself, her time and her heart at the service of others and now finds a space for herself. What happens in the end is only tragic depending on your point of view. Emma makes a very bold, very curious decision that might not make sense to some, but makes perfect sense to her.