I Am Love, Luca Guadagnino, 120 mins, (15)

Tilda Swinton stars in this visually magnificent story of a wealthy Italian family whose comfortable existence comes under threat

You know how, after watching certain Chinese films, you suddenly develop an irresistible craving for Szechuan food?

After the new Italian film I Am Love, you might hanker after a certain prawn dish, lovingly concocted in the story by a Milanese chef and just as lovingly shot in close-up by director of photography Yorick Le Saux. As the camera hovers over its delicately glazed orange surfaces, you may find yourself almost as enraptured as Tilda Swinton's character Emma, her face lit up in a blast of ecstasy. For Emma, this dainty antipasto is nothing less than an epiphany, the key to a new life, ultimately a ticket to perdition.

Given that the story's denouement is also triggered by a bowl of fish soup, you'd assume that I Am Love is a "foodie film", to be classed alongside Eat Drink Man Woman or Babette's Feast. In fact, cuisine is only a part of Luca Guadagnino's complex drama, but I mention the prawn dish because it signals this director's remarkable ability to evoke both sensuous and erotic rapture. Guadagnino's command of sense impressions altogether shows a film-maker with a broader, richer emotional palette than most.

However, sensuality isn't the word that suggests itself in the film's first 45 minutes, devoted to a formal, sober gathering in a Milanese mansion. After the opening images of a snowbound city – with credits pastiching the style of 1950s Italian melodrama – Guadagnino introduces the forbiddingly grand Recchi clan, a wealthy textile dynasty. The occasion that brings the family together is the birthday of arch-patriarch Edoardo (veteran Gabriele Ferzetti). Due to pass down command of the family business, he shocks everyone by dividing rule between his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and grandson Edo (Flavio Parenti). The latter – unthinkably for a Recchi – has incidentally just been beaten in a rowing race and by a chef, if you please. That chef, Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), emerges from the wintry night to bring Edo a cake – a peace offering or a victor's gift to the loser? Either way, that humble token proves to be a bomb planted in the Recchi fortress.

Throughout all this, Tilda Swinton oddly appears to be playing a background role: as Emma, Tancredi's wife, she glides around, efficient and discreet, supervising her staff as they set places for the evening meal. It's when the film shifts from winter to spring that she takes centre stage. First Emma discovers that her daughter Betta is lesbian and in love (Alba Rohrwacher is astutely cast, her pallor uncannily echoing the Swinton genes); then she becomes fascinated by Antonio's cuisine, and by Antonio. A dazzling section, executed with Hitchcockian elegance, has Emma cautiously shadowing the chef around the streets of San Remo. By the time Emma has made an impromptu visit to Antonio's farm in the hills, her fate is sealed – as is everyone else's in the film.

As its title suggests, the film is about love, presented in an unapologetically ecstatic visual language – a sunlit rhapsody of nakedness in the long grass, while bees buzz and the camera scrutinises flowers and insects. Colder-blooded British viewers might find such romanticism too full-blown for comfort – before realising that it is, of course, straight out of our own Lady Chatterley. Before long, however, the story turns to tragedy of operatic amplitude. Emma's climactic confrontation with Tancredi – following an unexpected catastrophe – has thunderous dramatic impact, as the spouses face each other in a cavernous chapel. It's in such moments that this ostensibly realistic drama takes expressionistic wing.

I Am Love is a curious, paradoxical film. It feels ultramodern, even experimental, in its foregrounding of style, yet it also cultivates a poised, severe classicism – thereby at once echoing two old masters of Italian cinema, Antonioni and Visconti. At first glance, too, this comes across as a deluxe bourgeois drama, fixated on opulent chic. Yet as the film unfolds, it increasingly reveals itself as a critique of power and the entrenched attitudes of a doomed plutocracy.

Among a strong ensemble cast that includes Marisa Berenson – 1970s muse to Visconti and Kubrick – Tilda Swinton gradually emerges in her most protean role to date. Enigmatic and elusive, Swinton shifts register from act to act – modulating from elegantly detached invisible woman, to erotically reborn sensualist, to the Phaedra-like heroine of the final sequences, galvanised by heartbreak and revolt.

The drama's intensity is buoyed up by the intricate, imposing dynamism of John Adams's music. Guadagnino astutely matches scenes to specific pieces: the result is certainly cinema's most inspired coupling of music and image since There Will Be Blood.

I Am Love was premiered at last autumn's Venice Film Festival, largely unheralded in a non-competition section. It turned out to be the revelation of the fortnight, one of those films that not only present a strikingly talented new director, but also reveal possibilities that you didn't know existed in narrative cinema. Apparently coming out of nowhere – although this is his third feature – Luca Guadagnino establishes himself as the real thing, a tremendously imaginative film-maker who combines minute perfectionism with phenomenal energy. I Am Love is a deeply serious film, and a seriously political one, but it's also playful, flamboyant and visually magnificent – a subtly but richly flavoured tonic for the jaded cinephile palate.

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