Eleven years in the making, Luca Guadagnino’s film is a tale of tradition and customs unravelling in the face of modernity, enlightenment, and love. It is also an exemplar study in sensuality on film, as co-producer and star Swinton herself so often seems to be.
The protagonist, Emma Recchi, is a Russian married to an Italian patriarchal dynasty of industrialists, whose contributing role in the downfall of the family is to allow herself to fall for a younger man. A chef called Anotnio to be precise, and it is his food that she is initially and instantly captivated by. Throughout the rest of the film, the contrast between the enlightenment of the senses that marks her experiences with Antonio and the strictness of her family life is carefully built and enhanced by Guadagnino, with caged bird metaphors popping up all over the place (a moth caught in the lamp beside her bed, a pigeon trapped in the dome of the family chapel). Insects also provide the clue to the difference between her Lady Chatterly-esque life with Antonio and her staid marital bed.
The Recchi family itself reflects the steady onward march of industrialism – they built a factory, moved up in society, hired an architect to design a beautiful modernist fortress (all hard lines and sumptuous materials), and their children and grandchildren study finance and the arts. The film is set at a tipping point in the history of the family, when it all begins to implode, the begnning of the end marked by the death of the grandfather. As well as smaller hints, such as Edo (the eldest grandson)’s failure to win an unspecified race – victory being a family tradition. Tellingly Antonio, the source of Emma’s later downfall, is the humble victor. The postscript scene finds Emma in a cave with Antonio, almost like a reversal of the process of civilisation that has been the hallmark of her husband’s family.
Although in a literal way, the only senses that can truly be affected by watching a film are sight and sound, some utilise these two to such effect that the other senses are brought into play. This must be one the few films where the first love scene is between a woman and a plate of seafood, impressionistic and seductively filmed, like a Marks & Spencer advert on overdrive. There is a scene where Emma grasps a handful of leaves from a bough and inhales, the camera paying such close attention that the audience can almost imagine the aroma in their own nostrils. In a classic deployment of pathetic fallacy the weather/ seasons are in keeping with the plot – from a cold wintry city scape to a hazy buzzing summer countryside. And Emma’s person is perfectly detailed, the cut of her hair and colour of her clothes reflecting events and her own mood.
Dealing with such classic themes as nature/ freedom vs captivity/ construct, it would very easy to tip over into obvious or trite symbolism. However the whole film is so carefully nuanced and layered, with references reachingback and forth through the narrative, and it is so beautifully detailed, that it glides past this potential trap.
Nevertheless it is unashamedly melodramatic. The dialogue is sweeping and grandiose: ‘You no longer know who I am.’ The music (by John Adams) is fundamental – perpetually heightening the drama, particularly in the closing sequence. But it is forgiveable precisely because it is so unapologetic, and because it works: the soaring violin really does tug on the heart strings. And for an English audience, no doubt the fact that it is Italian also excuses.
A delicious romance, refreshingly, the unfaithful wife gets away with it. She escapes, a pleasing result to the viewer because it really does seem like the ‘right’ thing. And, ultimately, who doesn’t want to run away to a picturesque hill farm with a lithe young chef who can cook food like you’ve never tasted before.
In summary, there is nothing new here, in terms of technique or concept – it’s just all done to utter perfection.