Prawn Porn and Hunger Strikes

The operatic charms of I Am Love, the comical wisdom of I Was Born, But …

I Am Love

The trailer for Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love (Magnolia Pictures) plays like a parody of a European art film. It has lush, swirling orchestral music. Meaningful glances exchanged by gorgeous people over delicious-looking plates of food. Stunning European locations (the cathedral in Milan, boats bobbing in the water off the San Remo coastline). Oh, and Tilda Swinton wearing exquisitely tailored designer clothes while speaking Italian.

I Am Love is so fiercely committed to sheer physical beauty, and to the tradition of 20th-century art cinema (which it cites in nearly every frame), that the film all but begs to be dismissed as insubstantial, derivative, and pretentious. Some critics have obliged. But count me among those impressed, even astounded, by the ambition of this luxuriant melodrama. If nothing else, it’s an eye-boggling two hours at the movies and a must for Swinton completists fascinated by her recent turn toward operatic roles in odd, unmarketable films like this one and last year’s Julia. She’s becoming the Maria Callas of international cinema.

The Recchis are a wealthy Milan family whose patriarch, Edoardo (Gabriele Ferzetti), made his fortune in fine textiles. Now dying, he bequeaths the company to his practical-minded son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and oldest grandson, the sensitive Edo (Flavio Parenti). There’s also a Recchi daughter, Betta (the luminous Alba Rohrwacher), who’s studying in London and, unbeknownst to her family, falling in love with another girl. Their mother, Emma (Tilda Swinton), is a Russian immigrant who runs the elegant household with an iron fist but who’s clearly adrift now that her children are grown and gone. While planning her son’s wedding, Emma eats a dish of prawns cooked by Edo’s chef friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) and is so overwhelmed by pleasure that she finds herself powerfully attracted to the young man who cooked them for her.

That’s all I’ll reveal of the plot, except to hazard that the chain of events that follows must surely be the most tragic ever to have been set off by a plate of shrimp. In its story structure and pacing, the film is operatic: the big emotional set pieces (the eating of the prawns, Emma’s first love scene with Antonio) are the arias, and the last act builds steadily toward an almost unbearable emotional crescendo. The music, taken from various operas by the modern composer John Adams, is extraordinary. Though it’s laid on with a hand that might be too heavy for some, once I’d given myself over to this film’s pleasurably overheated mood, I never experienced the score as intrusive.

I Am Love’s stately visual style is dense with allusions to other movies: Visconti’s Senso, De Sica’s   The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and even Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which is quoted in the spiral-shaped bun Emma wears in her hair. By all logic, a movie that’s this artificial, such an obviously constructed object, shouldn’t be emotionally involving; it should keep viewers at a remote aesthetic distance. But thanks to the power of Tilda (who was a key force in the making of this film, having developed it for the past seven years with the director, Luca Guadagnino), I Am Love isn’t just a bedazzlement to the eyes and ears. It’s a feast—or maybe just a small but divine dish of prawns—for the soul.

Another foreign film in limited release this week, Yasujiro Ozu’sI Was Born, But … (IFC), qualifies as one of my favorite movies of all time. This 1932 masterpiece, now digitally restored with retranslated subtitles and a newly recorded score, is a silent film that doesn’t feel silent at all. In fact, in the 15 or so years since I’d last seen it, I’d forgotten the film had no audible dialogue; whenever I thought about it, I could almost hear the characters’ voices in my mind. The story couldn’t be simpler and more elemental. A family with two little boys (Hideo Sugawara and Tokkan Kozo) moves to a newly built neighborhood on the outskirts of Tokyo. The boys (who are never given names throughout the film) are threatened by a local gang of bullies, so they play hooky from school until they’re found out by their father (Tatsuo Saito) and frog-marched back to the school gates.

Later, the boys watch a series of home movies in which their father, a salary man at a large company, makes a fool of himself to please his boss. Their respect for paternal authority is shattered, and, after a joint temper tantrum of epic proportions, they resolve to go on a hunger strike rather than eat the food their father works to provide them. The boys go to bed without dinner, their mother and father talk together about how to handle their sons’ rebellion, and … well, the next day dawns, and life goes on.

It sounds so slight, but I Was Born, But… commands your attention with the authority of a great work of art. First of all, it’s hilarious. The solemn-faced child actors—especially Tokkan Kozo, who was a big star at the time, sort of the Shirley Temple of Japan—provide physical comedy worthy of a Chaplin or Keaton film. Every character—not just the boys and their parents but the bullies, the teacher, the sake delivery boy—is deftly sketched, comical, and real. But Ozu’s movie is also smart at levels almost too subtle to discern, perhaps not so much smart as wise: about the inescapability of social hierarchies, the complexity of familial love, and what Dave McDougall, in a fine essay on the film, calls “a recognition of and commitment to life on earth.” Ozu, who was known for his intimate domestic dramas (and who continued to make nearly a film a year until his death in 1963), has a basic, direct style that makes these boys’ adventures, and their heartbreak, feel as fresh as if it all took place just yesterday.