Beautiful Oppression: Tilda Swinton in I am Love

From stills of this film alone you could easily be forgiven in thinking that I am Love (Io sono l’amore, 2009) was set during the 1960s. The designer clothes draped worn by lead members of the Recchi family, as selected by costumer Antonella Cannarozzi, are generally minimalist, in plain colours with little embellishment. I am Love is actually set in Europe around 2000, but its central characters are trapped as the well-heeled repressed of the sixties. Just as sexual, artistic and cultural expression was blossoming, the old guard struggled to make sense of this new world so regressed even more vehemently into their old one. The Recchi’s seem to live an intentionally separate existence to the rest of us. It is not just wealth either; they genuinely view themselves as our betters. It is the ethos of the class system. As such, when Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton) indulges in an extra marital affair, she comes acutely alive through colour. Emma finally understands that true happiness is free of dependability on anything; class, religion, wealth, even family.

The film begins as Emma, her housekeeper, maids, servants and caterers prepare for a birthday party in honour of family patriarch Edoardo Sr. Despite the undoubted stress of getting everything ‘just so’, Emma, dressed casually in soft taupe knitwear and matching polo shirt, is genial with all the staff and her grown up children. She changes for dinner wearing a simple purple shift dress, her long blonde hair scraped back with an Alice band. Emma is immaculate and perfect; the perfect hostess, wife and mother. The colour of her dress reflects Emma’s status as Recchi royalty. She compliments her ensemble with a gold ring and thick gold bracelet. The ring and bracelet are placed on Emma’s wrist by husband Tancredi. Essentially he decorates her for show. Emma responds as she should, and has probably done a hundred times already, passively.

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I am Love_Marisa Berenson fur coat rear_cap

At the dinner party we are introduced to Edoardo Sr.’s wife and grandmother to Emma’s children, Allegra (Marisa Berenson), an aristocratic sort in 1970s style Fendi furs, knitwear and wide leg pants. Even compared to Emma she is extremely slim. Emma is slight, but has the tinniest of bellies lumped beneath her clothes. This seemingly minor detail reveals why Emma lacks the discipline to be a true Recchi. Furthermore it demonstrates just how vanity free actress Tilda Swinton is not to hold her stomach in for even the most revealing of scenes. It is a pleasing paradox that someone dressed so immaculately can have such humility. Allegra would no doubt consider she is the most flawless woman in Milan, yet in reality she is one step away from vulgar. The ostentatious fur coat, the metallic threads, and later a studded leather handbag to match her colossal bracelet, reveal Allegra to be a wannabe fashionista to whom taste does not come naturally. Predictably for the locale, most of the male characters on screen are dressed comparably in stark grey suits with plain shirts and minimally patterned ties. All except Antonio Biscaglia (Edoardo Gabbriellini), the young and far ‘lower’ in status chef that Emma eventually initiates an affair with. Emma’s behaviour at the party is textbook ceremony, but her sexual frustration is exposed in close-up as she winds a strand of ribbon tightly around her fingers.

The story zips forward several months to find Emma running errands in Milan. She is wearing a somewhat peculiar combination of long, loosely structured lilac coat, pattern sweater, white slim leg cropped trousers, Hermès Kelly bag, brown and silver pearls, and black flats. All Swinton’s clothes in the film were provided by Raf Simons for Jil Sander, mostly a selection of deceptively mundane shifts and knits accompanied by a the Hermès. Note too Emma’s sweater here, it features a print that resembles the wrap she wears during the film’s final dinner party sequence, which in turn resembles work by abstract artist Sonia Delaunay, whose book, ‘Atelier Simultane’ she purchases while stalking Antonio through the streets of San Remo. Incidentally, Delaunay was Russian born but lived in central Europe, just like Emma. As Emma tells Antonio after they make love, she was brought over from Russia by Tancredi and given a new name; she does not even remember her birth one, that is how disconnected she is. At this point in the story Emma practically blends into her surroundings, but as the idea of an affair takes hold, perhaps inspired by discovering her daughter’s latent homosexuality, this soon begins to change.

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Emma chooses a royal blue shift dress with short sleeves, large brown plastic sunglasses with gold trim, black high heels and black Kelly to visit Allegra at her home. Apart from the sleeves this dress is practically the same as the slightly flared brown shift worn by Catherine Deneuve as Séverine in Belle de Jour (1967), which is hardly surprising given this film’s obvious influence (themes of repression, desire, fate). Bold colour has crept into her life, even if Emma’s overall style remains as unfussy as ever. She returns home to find Antonio catering her daughter’s party. They have a moment, but it is momentary and playful, even if we can sense Emma’s attraction by the awkwardness of her body language. She then lounges at home in a soft white shift and jacket, as though colour has suddenly been drained from her. The change is brief, however, as the red sleeveless shift and Damiani earrings Emma wears next implies most obviously her feelings for Antonio. It is a specific kind of red too; not damson or blood, but fire-like; she is burning with passion. Her fever dream over a plate of Antonio’s prawns is pretty much the clincher.

Allegra and Emma greet her daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) at the train station, returning home from university in London. At this point both we and Emma know Elisabetta is a lesbian, although judging by her outfit Allegra might too be suspicious. It could be argued that Elisabetta’s ensemble of long pale pink shorts, blue shirt, black boots with thick socks, and, most significantly, cropped hair is something of a lesbian cliché. Yet her sartorial transition is more than for our benefit. Elisabetta has gone from being a conventional majority to an unconventional minority. She wants to imply this transition, even though she is not ready to announce it. This is Elisabetta’s attempt to step away from feminine gender conventions, the kind of which presently enslave her mother. Just witness how Elisabetta’s potential male suitor views her short hair, “What have you done?” he sighs. He cannot fathom why any women would want to reject her gender ideal.

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On the subject of hair, when Emma commits to her affair with Antonio, seemingly by following him around until they bump into each other, the film pays homage to Vertigo (1958) with Tilda Swinton in the James Stewart role. However the stiff curl of her up-do resembles that of Kim Novak as disturbed heiress Madeleine. Unsurprisingly, I am Love director Luca Guadagnino is a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic mystery. Emma’s dress is basically a knee length orange wrap, but worn far looser than the style typically dictates and complimented by a lightly striped natural cashmere cardigan, and canvas and leather bag. The exposed back of the dress that is revealed when she accompanies Antonio to his farm is something of a shock. It provides a sudden burst of skin, glistening with sweat in the hot sun; a precursor to their making love.

Back home, Emma wears a long sheer white cardigan over a pale lilac wrap-over dress. This is actually her most blatantly sexual ensemble. It drapes across her almost exposed breasts, her lack of a bra implying a new sense of freedom and sexual awakening. Oddly enough the softness of the fabric gives off more of a 1970s Emmanuelle vibe. Yet in Antonio’s dream about Emma she is wearing her blue dress, maybe because it reminds him of their moment of closeness at Elisabetta’s party, or that destroying this persona is one of the things that attracts him to her. Notice too that Emma has short hair in the dream. She is the before and after version of his desire.

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I am Love_Tilda Swinton orange trousers top remove_cap

As the film’s enters its – for want of a better word – ‘sex’ sequence, Emma is wearing what may at first seem like a less than enticing outfit of orange slim leg trousers and light blue shirt. However what this ensemble allows Antonio to do in a way that a dress does not is gradually peel clothes away from Emma’s body. He undresses her one garment at a time. The anticipation is arousing and it demonstrates how habitually masculine dress can be even more sensual on a woman.

Emma’s next outfit is for another grand Recchi dinner party, although this one ends in disaster. Her pale pink sleeveless dress serves mostly to bring out the geometric wrap covering her right side. This wrap fulfils a narrative requirement because it features the same Sonia Delaunay print as the Atelier Simultane book found at Antonio’s father’s restaurant, allowing Emma’s son, Edoardo Jr. to put two and two together with the lock of blonde hair at the farm and his mother’s newly shorn bob. For us it shows a deeper connection to Antonio, even when Emma is on official best behaviour. This might have been Emma’s aim in context of the story; to feel closer to Antonio when figuratively they could not be father apart. Following the tragic events that occur at the party, Emma is awoken the next day and literally dressed by her housekeeper in correct black. After his son’s funeral, Emma opts to tell Tancredi that she loves Antonio. He rebukes that he no longer knows her, which is patently, and almost amusingly apparent, during the film’s final scene.

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With an understanding smile from her daughter, Emma dashes from the Recchi home wearing a green zip-up tracksuit top and stone cotton pants, an outfit she was briefly seen in at Antonio’s farm, and that presumably belongs to him. This is the ultimate dismissal of her previous life, and something that those with such adorations for Tilda Swinton’s costumes might be failing to grasp. If anything, dispute their evident exquisiteness, I am Love is derisive of Emma’s clothes; that they represent not happiness but oppression. Guadagnino is rejecting the edicts of beautiful yet cold couture. During the end credits we can see that Emma has essentially gone ‘back to nature’, caressing Antonio inside a cave.

It is pleasing to note that I am Love is one of the only (almost) contemporary set films in recent years to receive an Oscar nomination for costume design. It didn’t win. We have to wonder if the Academy really understood the true, deeper meaning of the garments, or appreciated them purely for their striking artistic merit. Sadly, we imagine it was the latter.

NOTE: Images have been screencapped from DVD edition and cropped to better highlight costumes.

© 2015, Lord Christopher Laverty.