A Sin Prevention Machine
If you have seen I am Love, you should go read Matthew Milliner’s review, which explains what most of the critics who reviewed the film seemed to miss. Spoilers below.
The critics ignored entirely the filmmaker’s unease about the infidelity of the protagonist, a Russian who has married into an Italian textile family. She performs her duties as hostess and matriarch coldly and dutifully, but after a particularly luscious crustacean-oriented meal she begins carrying on with the young hot-blooded chef, a friend of her son Edoardo. The husband and company boss is in the process of selling the company to an international conglomerate, represented by an unctuous American who tells the family that “Democracy is Capital” at the same moment that Edoardo discovers his mother’s adultery. (The camera, as if unsure which of the two threads to follow, hangs motionless over a bowl of vegetable soup.) Running outside to confront her, he slips on a wet tile by the pool and is killed.
The critics who have lamely identified Tilda Swinton’s passions as the center of the film’s action seem to have watched the film they expected rather than the actual film. Milliner gets it exactly right:
This is not a film about “repression and breaking free” as wikipedia tells us (despite my futile attempt to add some nuance to the entry). I Am Love is instead a critique of what R.R. Reno calls the Empire of Desire, not a call (like every other film) to submit to imperial demands. Sometime in the Middle Ages, I imagine an enterprising cleric may have conceived of a sin prevention machine, in which individuals could be placed to convince them not to steal or murder. It took the technology of film to be actualized, but the anti-adultery machine has been perfected, and its name is I Am Love. Be ye warned, the film contains some borderline pornography (in addition to prawnography), the redemptive factor being its inescapable (and perhaps intentional) ugliness. Insects pollinating flowers are spliced into one particular bout of outdoor copulation, which is not – as some might assume – an endorsement of the “naturalness” of this affair, but a mockery of humans who act like insects.
Even usually perceptive critics entirely gloss over crucial scenes, especially the one where Edoardo’s recently uncloseted lesbian sister Betta tells him that his pangs of conscience about selling the factory are unnecessary. In fact the critics ignore Edoardo and what he represents — a veto on the avarice of his father and the lust of his mother — altogether. The film takes some pains to present all of Edoardo’s family members as enthralled to their desires. Only Edoardo acts on principle rather than desire.
The sole hesitation I feel in agreeing with Milliner completely is due to the precipitous decline in the quality of directorial decision-making in the final third of the film. I wonder if the infamously over-the-top sex scene might not have been a kind of turning point where the director lost his nerve and couldn’t follow through with moral tensions he’d created earlier in the film. Milliner’s interpretation of the scene as hostile to the adultery it depicts makes sense in the context of what precedes it, but in the context of the remainder of the film it just looks like bad directing, of a piece with the soundless emergency-room montage and the weeping statues at the funeral. And of course, Edoardo’s death itself, which arrives like a deus ex machina, a panicked reaction caused by a too-thorough identification with the panic of his star actress at being discovered. Edo’s death allows the film to resolve itself into the passion-vs-patriarchy narrative that the critics were expecting, and, it seems, desiring. Or is the director so masterful that he makes the viewers complicit in Edo’s death as they too breathe a sigh of relief along with the mother? It’s unclear, but in any case it’s remarkable that the whole question seems to have been lost on almost all mainstream film critics.