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Last year I gushingly reviewed Julia, a thriller in which Tilda Swinton plays an alcoholic degenerate. The performance is honest and without remorse – her Julia is a despicable person, yet remains fiercely magnetic. Just when I thought I couldn’t be surprised by her gifts, Swinton comes out with I Am Love, a lush melodrama about a wealthy Milan family. Even if you ignore the feat of speaking pitch-perfect Italian and Russian, Swinton’s work is remarkable for the depth she’s able to project. Her understated approach is a stirring counterbalance writer/director Luca Guadagnino‘s style. His bold gestures and sumptuous cinematography dominate the screen, making this director/actor collaboration uncommonly moving.

Edoardo Recchi (Gabriele Ferzetti) is a patriarch whose power/influence has gotten to his head. At his birthday party, he languidly walks around the table, delegating power like a king. Many fear him, but daughter-in-law Emma (Swinton) is too busy preparing to notice. She’s a Russian immigrant with striking blond hair who’ll never be totally accepted by the elite Italian family. Husband Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and son Edo (Flavio Parenti) are running the business, so Emma spends her time thinking about Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), Edo’s friend who runs a successful restaurant. Brisk camerawork hints at their attraction, and it seems inevitable they’ll sleep together. Daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) is a free spirit who, like Antonio, helps Emma move beyond polite reticence. The blossoming affair could unravel the Rechhi dynasty, and after an unexpected confrontation, Emma is left with stark choices.

The connection between nature and emotion is felt early. Wintry exteriors mirror the chilled emotion of Edoardo’s party. And as the affair reaches its erotic peak, beautiful summer scenes match the lovers’ warmth. Eschewing realism may turn off some, but those who accept Guadagnino’s premise will share Emma’s rapture and heartbreak. The symbolism does not stop there – Emma’s children represent opposing lifestyles, and their fates illuminate the path she should take. Along her character’s remarkable journey, Swinton’s facial contortions are affecting. In the final act, she trusts audiences to empathize with her. The gambit pays off – Swinton literally took my breath away, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she has the same influence over others. The supporting cast performs admirably. Because the younger actors embody ideals more than they portray individuals, their work has less depth. It’s no surprise, really – Swinton and Guadagnino worked on I Am Love for seven years, so this movie highlights their skills above all. Strangely enough, American Marisa Berenson is the other standout as Emma’s mother-in-law. She’s never cruel, yet subtle body language is quietly exclusionary.

The stifled well-to-do woman is a familiar archetype. Without such thoughtfulness, Emma’s story could have easily been on autopilot. Because the writers closely observe each relationship and Swinton understands her character from the inside-out, Emma isn’t just another unhappy woman. She’s someone with sophistication and depth, and Guadagnino’s use of setting adds the kind of insight one would normally find in a novel. Midway through the movie, I was unsure where the story was going, or whether I cared.  By the end, I realized I Am Love is unique, and became grateful for the sublime experience*. This is one of the year’s most daring movies, and also one of the best.

* Reminiscent of Philip Glass, composer John Adams’ score fits in perfectly. You may want to nab the soundtrack after the credits roll.