The starting point for I Am Love was a film made by Guadagnino in 2002, entitled The Love Factory which involved Tilda Swinton talking face to camera detailing a number of reflections on the nature of love, "an extremely affecting moment" Guadagnino revealed at a recent press conference.
The narrative of I Am love was thus developed out of the more conceptual reflections in the earlier film. The other significant influence was Thomas Mann's epic novel of bourgeois decline, Buddenbrooks, and particulalrly the portrayal of the mother, Gerda Buddenbrooks (apparently based on Mann's own mother) in the book. Themes from both of these sources came together in this rich and complex melodrama detailing the affair of an haute bourgeois woman, the Russian emigre wife of a rich Italian industrialist, with a younger man, a chef friend of her son's.
Like Thomas Mann, Guadagnino tells his stories through detail. Guadagnino's camera is forever roaming about the place, seeking out new sights and smells, drinking deep from the palette of sensations offered up by the characters and locations. When it is hot, we feel the heat, and when it is cold we are freezing. Full use is made of the gorgeous northern Italian vistas and sumptuous food on almost permanent display – not in a manner you could call self-indulgent, rather more in the nature of a perfectly human desire to drink it all in. The camera here is a character. A voyeur, like in Hitchcock, yes – but more intimate than that, like a close friend or confidante. Or, perhaps more appropriately, the spirit of a dead lover. The camera haunts the narrative, assuring us simultaneously that everything will be OK, and that everything will not be OK, everything will end in tragedy.
At the same, aforementioned press conference, Swinton spoke of working towards a "sensational cinema", she continued, "a cinema that occupies a sensational space, not only in terms of the camera but also in terms of its narrative not being driven by dialogue, but by the interior life of the characters, their relationship with temperature and with texture." It is in this sense that a film like I am love must be understood. At first, one might find the capricious nature of the photography somewhat distracting, irritating even, but soon one learns a certain mediterranean disposition - allowing the absent narrator to take you on its own journey in its own time and in its own way. There is a Proustian quality, perhaps, in its drifting, associative narrative style - but perhaps even more, one could mention Flaubert, the very beginnings of modernism in literature, wherein the epic is structured out of a thousand tiny details and seemingly insignificant passing moments.
As much as this is a film about seduction – it is also a film which itself seduces, but not in the traditional style of mainstream Hollywood, or even French, seamless glossiness. As the film opens, one could be forgiven for wondering initially if we were about to witness a remake of Thomas Vinterberg's Festen – a large bourgeois family, in a big plush house, preparing for an elaborate family dinner – but there is to be no great family secrets unearthed at this meal. The reference to this most successful of the Danish Dogme '95 films is nonetheless appropriate though. Just as Vinterberg and von Trier's 1995 manifesto ushered in a new mode of cinematic realism whose influence and effect went well beyond its immediate impact, here too could be a new approach to the filming of reality. A cinema of the body and which works on the body, from the tongue to the loins. Not a tasteful cinema – rather a cinema that one tastes (and it tastes delicious).