I went to see this with few preconceptions. All I knew was that it starred Tilda Swinton – who was playing a Russian in an Italian film. There were just three of us in a 300+ seat cinema at teatime during the World Cup.
What a stupendous melodrama! I’m so glad I made the effort. Following the equally wonderful Vincere, I’m very aware of how much I’ve missed the ‘excess’ of Italian Cinema. The print I saw seemed a little ‘soft’ – which may have been the projection – but I was bowled over by the cinematography, production design, the typography of the titles, the costumes and the music – by American opera composer John Adams. The performances were terrific and in all this was melodrama par excellence.
Plot outline (no spoilers)
Tilda Swinton is ‘Emma’ – a name she adopted when she married into the Italian haute bourgeoisie from her Russian background. She was ‘collected’, rather like a work of art, by the textile industrialist Tancredi Recchi. Now Emma is the matriarch of an Italian family with three grown-up children. When the head of the family business retires he leaves the company, jointly to his son, Tancredi and, more controversially to his grandson Eduardo. The significant ‘stranger’ who then moves ‘into’ the family is not so much Eva, Eduardo’s fiancée, but Antonio, a young chef who becomes first Eduardo’s friend and then his putative partner in a restaurant business. Antonio also meets Emma – with explosive results.
There is a lot to say about writer/director Luca Guadagnino‘s film, but perhaps the most important observation is that this is the kind of film that really divides audiences. I think it’s very sad but so few commentators seem able to watch a film and judge it on its merits. So the divide here is the all too familiar one of mainstream v. art and drama v. melodrama. If you don’t like traditional melodrama – that is, ‘excess’ on screen and on the soundtrack to express emotions that can’t be ‘spoken’ – you’ll probably hate the film and find it silly. This is the reaction of many IMDB users (though to be fair, they are matched by a similar number of swooners). You will probably also find the sex scenes laughable – I was surprised by my reaction to them in that I found them intensely erotic.
The obvious reference point for many aspects of the film is the work of Luchino Visconti. The family of industrialists who work under fascism as easily as democracy and always to preserve the business is from The Damned. The lust which overcomes Emma is there in Ossessione and in a more genteel way in Senso. The aristo/haute bourgeois family who give lavish parties whilst trying to evolve under late capitalism is from The Leopard. I was trying to think of Milanese movies, but the only one that popped into my head was de Sica’s Garden of the Finzi-Continis and that isn’t really appropriate. More appropriate as a similar setting is the recent French film, A Christmas Tale. Others have mentioned Antonioni. The film is strong in terms of feel and atmosphere but weak perhaps in narrative development. I think that the reason some audiences lose patience is that the conventional story ideas are not developed. For instance, Eduardo projects a kind of nostalgia for a family firm that looks after its employees and strives for ethical policies. He seems to have brushed over some of the family’s previous business decisions and his father is ruthless and ‘modern’ – yet this distinction isn’t really developed. Similarly, his sister Betta also defies the assumptions about how she may behave – allying herself in some ways with Eduardo. Her other brother is a nondescript character in the background (passed over by his grandfather). The potentially interesting story here is pushed aside in favour of the amour fou between Emma and Antonio.
The two other aspects of the film which will no doubt puzzle mainstream audiences, but perhaps help create a cultish following for the film, are first, Emma’s fleeting memories of Russian streets and an almost Hitchcockian sense of a potential romantic thriller emerging at certain points. Vertigo has been mentioned by some critics. I certainly got a frisson of this when Emma, stopping in Sanremo on her way to Nice, notices a Russian Orthodox church – and then Antonio. (Sanremo was an important resort for the Russian aristocracy before 1917.) I was vaguely reminded of Vertigo and other Hitchcock films at this point. The second aspect which might puzzle audiences is the use of very sudden and almost brutal edits at various points and then the use of short sequences outside the linear narrative so that we cannot be sure who knows what and whether something will be discovered. So, if you want a conventional story in which puzzles can be solved with clues and a satisfactory conclusion reached, you won’t find it here. But if you want to swoon in sensual delight and perhaps experience what it feels like to be madly in love – disorientating as well as exhilarating – this could be the movie for you.
Tilda Swinton is properly the centre of the film and she looks fabulous. It helps that she is tall and slender and can wear beautiful but simple clothes – but that she can also do devastated and bedraggled with equal conviction.
One final point – have your dinner date sorted out for after the screening as you may be hungry.