Last summer, I watched I Am Love and broke my weakly held resolve not to watch Tilda Swinton movies. I briefly attempted to boycott the actress’ work following her decision to stand with Roman Polanski in 2009. I can’t justify the revocation. But I remain invested in her career, as well as her sartorial choices, musical collaborations, and commitment to global cinema. While I’m disappointed that Swinton (among folks like Martin Scorsese) signed a petition demanding Polanski’s release from Zürich, I think she makes cerebral professional choices and is one of the most compelling screen presences of her generation.
I was interested in I Am Love for a few reasons. For one, I love passion project collaborations between friends. Director Luca Guadagnino spent several years trying to get the project off the ground and Swinton was instrumental in getting the film made. Also, she speaks Italian in the thing. To add a layer of complexity, her Italian is inflected with a Russian accent, as her character Emma escaped the Soviet regime through marrying into a wealthy Italian family who made their money in textiles. Also, after reading Stella Bruzzi’s Undressing Cinema, I have renewed critical interest in costume design for film. Thus, I also have an investment in the ongoing discourse surrounding the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ inattention toward achievements in costuming beyond period films (an argument in conversation with critical pushback against the Academy’s definitions on what constitutes an “original” film score), I was interested in how designer Antonella Cannarozzi dressed the film.
Though I Am Love takes place at the turn of the 21st century, and is thus ultimately a period film, it challenges Molly Lambert’s assertion that, in the 90s, European fashion foregrounded excess while American clothing design privileged simplicity. While some of her extended family may take to lavish high couture, much of Emma’s wardrobe consists of minimalist shift dresses and twinsets. The exceptional fit and versatility of a garment seems to justify its cost rather than its opulent detailing. Given German designer Jil Sander’s involvement in I Am Love, we might need to complicate our assumptions about how clothing designers use clothes to signify material wealth and nationhood. Though it seems as though Emma looks toward American society wives like Jacqueline Kennedy when she puts together an outfit, we might want to remember the First Lady’s obsession with French designers. However, just as with everything else in Emma’s life, her clothes confine her as much as they announce her station.
Many people describe the film as a story about a woman breaking free from societal restriction. They would be right in that summation, though short-sighted if they solely attribute her awakening to taking a lover. True, Antonio is an important figure. He’s a chef and of a lower class position than Emma. But while much has been made of the “prawnography” scene and the sequence where Emma finally pursues her desire, all of Emma’s decisions are motivated by the understanding that her daughter Elisabetta is as a lesbian. This bit of news–and the implication of her daughter’s rebellion against her mother’s life decisions–seem to initially disturb but ultimately transform Emma. If her daughter can follow her heart and own her desires, why can’t she? This redefines their relationship and places Elisabetta in something of a mentorship position for her mother, who is only finally learning how to love after taking to her daughter’s example. As an adult woman whose mother just turned 65 yesterday, I take enormous comfort and pride in how she seeks to learn from me as much as I do from her.
This brings us to the scene where Emma discovers her daughter’s orientation. Emma finds Elisabetta’s copy of Arto Lindsay’s Salt, a token from an ill-fated affair with another woman. She keeps this album as a reminder of what they shared and a means through which to process her grief and find catharsis. Lindsay’s status as a post-rock avant-garde composer may now be a signifier of affluence, as Krin Gabbard argues as jazz’s function in American film after the 1970s in Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema. Lindsay drove Caetano Veloso from the airport during the Brazilian musician’s first trip to New York. This may have represented a reassertion of a fringe or outsider identity in the 1980s, as Lindsay and Veloso were associated with politically reactionary musical subgenres like no wave and Tropicália at the time. But twenty to thirty years later, it may also just mean that more rich people can throw on a Caetano Veloso record for a dinner party. However, I don’t think those affiliations necessarily presume a degradation in quality or emotional significance for the listener. What’s more, subversion can happen in a concert hall or a boat party as surely as it can in a punk concert in someone’s basement.
It should not be ignored that Lindsay’s Salt uses a Kara Walker piece as its cover art. As many recognize and I discussed elsewhere, Walker’s confrontational body of work is loaded with rich, complicated, and troubling assertions and surreal reimaginings of America’s racist cultural history. Thus it might be just as upsetting that Emma’s daughter has an album with a cover that appears to have an image of a man examining and invading a black woman’s anatomy. What’s especially disconcerting about this image is its ambiguity–is the woman helping or controlling her examiner? Agency is not clearly established here, nor are power relations fixed. This conscious decision to position the art within the abject and play with societal boundaries would seem just as upsetting to a woman who built her life on being the perfect mother, wife, and hostess. These are the imposed borders through which Emma traverses. Her daughter, along with Lindsay and Walker, provides a compass.