Thursday, July 1, 2010

I Am Love

I Am Love is an odd movie.  It's full of things that ought not to work.  I kept thinking things like, "Oh no, not another movie about falling in love through the erotic powers of food," or "Really? A lesbian subplot featuring prurient close-ups of hot girls kissing?" and "That twist at the end, so cheap."

There's more, too.  It's shot oddly - there are outdoor night-scenes that are very poorly lit, so that all the actors are dim and grey; there are lengthy close-ups of rain on statues and multiple flat, disposable-camera style shots of buildings passing by from the window of a car.  The movie is lulling, a slow burn rather than a firecracker.  Especially at first, it's hard to really get a grip on what's going on - all the characters are self-controlled, not particularly emotive, and it's a game of reading into their non-reactions as events unfurl.

But it does work, despite all of the elements that would sink a lesser movie.  Because all of the twists and turns that would have evolved into high drama in another film are dulled or blunted here, I Am Love is a film all about subterranean, core-deep tectonic shifts that slowly build up pressure until finally, as the movie nears its conclusion, the cracks that begin to visibly split the family apart really do feel like earthquakes.

After I walked out of the theater, while I was hashing out my thoughts with my cousin, who'd accompanied me, and then later as I read through a few reviews, I realized exactly how well-balanced the movie is.  My cousin asked if I thought it was a movie that glamorized adultery and leaving one's family to pursue the thrill of true love.  And I answered: no, I didn't get that sense at all.  That was what Tilda's character did, yes, but it didn't seem like a victory or a prescription; and there's another sub-plot, about a son who finds a nice girl and settles down with her, who seems perfectly happy to do the expected thing, that's presented with the same lack of judgment.

And the things that stuck me most, which seem to strike everyone the most, are all self-consciously quiet.  A scene when Tilda asks her housekeeper to have dinner with her while they're both doing chores in the laundry room.  A shot when Tilda's character laughs, a rare occurance, while sitting on the toilet.  A tense, absolutely perfect moment between Tilda and her husband near the conclusion, when a scene ready-made to overflow with sturm and drang instead went the way of a silent but shocking nuclear explosion.  The movie is full of scenes that illustrate the power of understatement.

Final note: I just re-read the New Yorker's review of the film (Second Helpings) - it's utterly glowing, beginning with the strict admonition to see the movie in theaters rather than waiting for it to come out on DVD.  The only thing that the author, Anthony Lane, complains about is the scene where Tilda's lover gives her oral sex.  It cuts between the coupling and shots of insects going about their business, and he's right that this is not exactly a fresh metaphor - but the whole movie is like that, full of cliched imagery that still somehow works.  In the same paragraph, even, Lane gushingly describes the film's metaphorical use of the changing seasons, from winter to spring.  If he's willing to enthuse about the weather, his excuse about the bees doesn't hold water.  When I watched the sex scene, I remember thinking about This Film Not Yet Rated, which argues very strongly that the ratings board penalizes movies that show female pleasure and in particular oral sex on women.  Even at the time, I was surprised and delighted to see a filmmaker so clearly and unapologetically go there.  Shame on you, New Yorker critic, for jumping on the bandwagon and telling us that scenes of cunnilingus are unnecessary.  The truth is precisely the opposite.

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