Alternately elliptical and baroque, Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love might unnecessarily fracture and aestheticize its story of female identity and emancipation in search of an overwrought auteurist signature, but that central story and its tributaries are rich enough to overcome much of the director's odd and arguably unmotivated catalogue of visual and aural trickery. Which is not to say that all of Guadagnino's conspicuous directorial touches prove ineffective (occasional brushstrokes of impressionistic detail serve to heighten our understanding of the character's emotional orientation), but too often they distract from, rather than augment, the inner lives of the film's central figures.
In short, Guadagnino is most effective when he plays things relatively straight. In a skillful opening sequence, a series of tone-setting monochromatic glimpses of austere Milan snowscapes gives way to a dinner party for an extended upper-crust family. Introducing the members of this traditionally patriarchal clan, the director avoids much in the way of baroque touches (excepting a few wide-angle shots isolating the aging paterfamilias at the end of the deeply recessed table), instead focusing his attention on establishing the web of relations between the characters and the ripples that pass through the room when that head-of-household announces his intention to leave the family factory not only, as expected, to his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), but to his grandson Edo (Flavio Parenti) as well.
Having set down the family dynamic, the film then switches its attention to Tancredi's wife, Emma (Tilda Swinton), a Russian woman who has completely abandoned her former identity (“When I moved to Milan, I stopped being Russian,” she says). Having even taken on a new name, her Eastern past resurfaces only in a memory montage in which images of the motherland shot on brownish film stock race by in rapid succession. Stopping off in San Remo en route to France to visit her daughter, Emma runs into Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), the handsome, much younger friend of her son and, predictably enough, the two soon begin an affair.
Although this relatively straightforward storyline becomes the film's central thread, it takes on additional heft through a series of counterpointing storylines involving the other members of the family, as well as Guadagnino's sensitive handling of the budding romance. As Emma embarks on new, more rewarding personal pursuits, she's doubled by her newly out lesbian daughter (the two both crop their hair short), while her son's qualms about the ethical operation of the factory and his involvement in an international sales deal ground the film in a wider moral context.
Less successful are some of the director's attempts to enhance our understanding of the central romance through visual and aural foolery. As Emma and Antonio spend an idyllic afternoon in the country, their joy in each other's company is nicely mirrored by the lush green of their surroundings. But then Guadagnino takes it too far, representing the ensuing intercourse through an ill-advised montage alternating close-ups of flowers and insects with abstracting views of the couple's body parts, bluntly and ungracefully signaling their “oneness” with nature. By contrast, an earlier sequence in which Emma's attraction to Antonio becomes cemented when she tastes his cooking proves at least moderately successful in using visual means—looming brightly lit close-ups of the artfully arranged shrimp plate, a spotlight isolating Emma in a three shot—to effectively convey the synesthenic pleasures of an alternate sense. Still, by the time of the film's hyper-dramatic ending, in which a loud brass crescendo complements alternating views of each of the film's characters while drowning out their speech, one wonders if Guadagnino might have been better off ditching this baroque impressionism altogether and letting the not negligible pleasures of his story speak for themselves.