(MAMMA MIA) I AM LOVE (2010)
I am Love could just as well be titled “I am Heavy-Breathing Melodrama” or “I am an Italian Soap Opera.” Here we have the rich behaving badly and stupidly, throwing away position and trampling on privilege in the headlong pursuit of passion and losing everything in the process. The story is Phaedre (1962) plus Damage (1992) in which the final moral is that old people should leave young people alone. As a Greek myth, Phaedra was played like a tragedy, brought on by the fatal flaws of humans who could not control themselves—a favorite Greek theme. Damage reversed the gender of the older lover but made the young woman into an adventurer with a predatory streak. I am Love also begins with a predatory young male lover who destroys a family that is sunk in complacency and is ripe for destruction.
The setting is Milan and the family business of the Recchi family is textiles. The family is wealthy and close-knit, impenetrable to outsiders. However, the son, Edoardo (Gabriele Ferzetti) and heir brought an outsider into the family, his Russian wife, renamed “Emma.” (Tilda Swinton) Emma has done her Catholic familial duty, giving up her identity, becoming Italian, producing two sons and one daughter and enduring the passive aggressive slights of her mother in law, an almost unrecognizable Marisa Berenson, transformed by plastic surgery. “Emma” and “Edoardo” are at that married-but-estranged state, common after three decades of familiarity. And there are other signs that all is not well among the males, who are jousting for position as the head of the family is coming to the end of his long reign. At a Christmas dinner, his grandson, Edoardo, Jr. brings home a somewhat unsuitable young woman and the bad news that he has lost a contest to, of all people, a chef—a working class man. Obviously, the grandson and heir is not worthy of all that should be coming to him.
Enter the snake into this suave Garden of Eden. The “chef,” “Antonio,” courts the son, bringing a cake as a consolation prize to “Edoardo” and spies an even bigger prize, his mother, “Emma.” “Emma” is beautiful, polished and bottled up, and so, like “Lady Chatterley” meeting the “gamekeeper,” she picks up on the young man’s interest. All coiled up and hissing inside a box, the cake is the signifier of temptation, but it takes a while to get to the apple biting. The plot unfolds with glacial slowness, the frozen sexuality of “Emma” telegraphed to us by the thin layer of winter snow. The patriarch of the family dies and leaves the business to his son and immature grandson. The grandson, Edoardo, Jr. needs to prove himself and the chef sees his chance and draws the young man into financing and sponsoring his new restaurant. “Antonio” is talented but needs useless rich people to back him, just as “Emma” needed “Edoardo, Sr.” to take her out of Russia. Both should know better than to upset the social balance: they are dependent upon the rich, but they pursue each other.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover has been a favorite story ever since D. H. Lawrence wrote the scandalous novel of class differences and steaming sex scenes, which was banned in America and made into a half dozen films. While Lady Chatterley is excused by her husband’s physical ailments, there is no excuse for “Emma’s” behavior. The signifier of corruption is an art book “Emma” steals in an absent minded moment of passion. “Antonio” finds her in the bookstore and takes her away in his pickup truck to the site of his future restaurant. As an art historian, stealing an art book bothered me, but never mind, for the two lovers were off in the Springtime of their Love to the sunny top of the chef’s mountain lair. By this time (Spring, Summer, sometime warm), the colors are more intense and, if the audience hasn’t caught onto “Emma’s” sexual awakening, her orange pants provide a vital clue. On this verdant site where “Emma’s” son will invest in a restaurant, the doomed couple frolic in the grass, which springs to erect attention in a field full of blooming flowers penetrated by bees who will also like the ripe swollen raspberries jostling nearby. There are lots of ants who crawl around the fuzzy close ups of writhing bodies and the equally overripe music of John Adams. Adams, we are told is a contemporary of Philip Glass, a designation that obscures the fact that Adams composes music that “sounds like Philip Glass,” to quote a famous phrase. The viewer is dragged through a linear progress of grass waving and flower shaking and violin scrapings, which warn, all the while, that the wages of sin are death. But whose?
The elaborate plot meanders to include a pregnancy for “Edouard Jr.’s” girlfriend, “Eva,” who knows how to tie her man down, while the daughter, “Betta,” (Alba Rohrwacher) deviates off the marriage path, cuts her hair, dons masculine attire and acquires a female lover. Hair cutting becomes a symbol of the freeing of female sexuality. “Antonio cuts “Emma’s” long blond hair” perhaps because he did not like her prim Kim Novak chignon. The family politely ignores such developments—the suspicious short hair, the pregnancy, because they do not upset the order of things, and the lesbian in the family lives in London. However, two events occur which do upset young Edoardo. First, his father sells the business he was supposed to one day inherit, depriving him of his future; and second, “Emma,” who was instructed to give the chef, “Antonio” the menu for a family dinner, provides him with the recipe for a beloved childhood soup. The occasion is a celebration of the sale of the business to a global enterprise, so the poor young man is already upset. As soon as the soup is served, Edoardo immediately leaps to the conclusion that his mother has been having an affair with the chef. The clue: Edoardo, who apparently had the eyes of an eagle, spotted a few strands of his mother’s cut hair at the site of the future restaurant. Hair+recipe=affair.
The young man storms out of the dinner party—very unprofessional and immature—and retreats to the family swimming pool for a good sulk. Unwisely his mother follows, they quarrel and he trips over something or other and hits his head on the concrete and falls into the pool and dies unnecessarily. The young man is dead because of his mother’s bad behavior (but no one knows that…yet). The chef summarily disappears from the stage. The family mourns its dead. The father, Edoardo, Sr. attempts to restore family order, implicitly signaling his willingness to overlook her possible transgressions, but “Emma” announces she “loves Antonio.” Of course she is immediately ordered out of existence; the family, including her other two children, close ranks against her; and she runs off, surrounded by over-dramatic music. End of movie.
The stunned and bewildered audience has to supply its own resolution. “Antonio,” of course, has lost his restaurant, and goes off to find another mark. Edoardo, Sr. remarries someone one-third his age and tried again to produce a satisfactory son. We can imagine “Emma,” if we chose, getting a large divorce settlement from her husband and living happily ever after on her well-deserved alimony. And we warn her to stay away from opportunistic young men…or to please remember that the operative word in “boy toy” is “toy.”
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger