I just saw AGORA and, to calm down after a truly vile lie of a film, I decided to browse at Barnes & Noble and picked up the latest copy of Cineaction and began reading the two reviews of I AM LOVE (both paired essays involving another film) and … well, my calmness hasn’t returned.
Some people don’t like I AM LOVE as much as I do, and that’s fine (though I must say it’s disconcerting to see a critic I like and am generally simpatico with has walked out on 3 of my top 5 year to date). But I have to wonder whether Susan Morrison was even paying attention or was trying to shoehorn the film into the same template as the film she has paired it with, CAIRO TIME (which I have not seen). Her basic complaint, encapsulated in the essay title “What Does a Woman Want?” is that both films are women’s picture fantasies of a middle-aged woman sexually awakened by an affair with a much younger man. As far as that goes (not very; mere genre ID’ing never does), this is a not-inaccurate description of I AM LOVE (and of CAIRO TIME, best I can tell from the trailer). But these nearly two paragraphs, which I reproduce with an ellipsis (article doesn’t seem to be online), made me want to rip the magazine into shreds on the middle of the store.
“Neither [Tilda Swinton’s character Emma in I AM LOVE nor Patricia Clarkson’s Juliette in CAIRO TIME] is native to the country where the action takes place: Emma is of Russian origin although that is not made obvious by any actions or character traits, her past somewhat convoluted as to how she came to marry into a wealthy Milanese family. Juliette is a Canadian visiting the Middle East. Both are in effect “foreigners” in their diegetic milieus: the one, Emma seeminglyfully assimilated into the Italian haute bourgeoisie; the other, Juliette, visibly obvious as an outsider. (VJM: so far so good)
While Emma’s Russianness is not as evident as Juliette’s Canadianness, in both films, the protagonist’s nationality is thematically crucial as it implies a cold, remote climate/society/personality that needs to be thawed out by the warmth of a younger man from a much warmer climate who is hence and stereotypically more attuned to passion and emotional expression than the northern female. In [I AM LOVE], there seems to be no other reason for Emma to be of Russian origin; she certainly doesn’t look Russian, but it was serve to explain her froideur in contrast to when she is faced with all these warm-blooded Italians. … It is one of the film’s more simplistic moments when Emma’s transformation from cold Russian to passionate Italian (lover) is indicates by renouncing [fashion designer] Jill Sander and the perfect haircut for old baggy pants and sloppy shirt, and ritually hacking off her hair to a short choppy look that wants to say “I’m liberated.” this transformation seems doubly motivated: a subplot in the film revolves around Emma’s daughter, whose own “coming out” as gay was signaled by her shearing of her beautiful long hair. However, all this does is create a reductivist paradigm for reading Emma’s metamorphosis as competition to her daughter’s revelation. Emma too ends up with a new look and a taboo relationship.
Faced with such a welter of self-contradictions, one wonders — Where. To. Begin.
(1) In what possible sense would a lesbian relationship be taboo for a movie set in the Milan of 2009 among the wealthy bourgeois? Not in the actual world of rich Milanese in 2009, rightly or wrongly. And nothing in the film suggests the daughter is any way punished or ostracized, though there is some shock on Emma’s part when she unexpectedly and accidentally finds out (how could there not be under those circumstances).
(2) Emma can either be “fully assimilated” and her Russianness not “made obvious by any actions or character traits.” Or her Russianness can be crucial in terms of setting up a polarity of stereotypical national character traits. Can’t be both.
(3) Does Morrison not realize that Emma had been around “all these warm-blooded Italians” for at least 25 or 30 years before she met her son’s friend. Even had sex with at least one of them (her swarthy husband) at least a a few times, though I am obviously inferring. She is not Clarkson dropping into Cairo for a brief vacation/fling (or more relevantly, the symbol of Anglo spinsterism, Katharine Hepburn, falling for Venice and Rossano Brazzi), where her criticism at least passes superficial plausibility. Emma is in no uniquely characterological sense “Russian.”
(4) Morrison doesn’t even get her own stereotypes right. Russia is obviously a cold place, but the national stereotype is not exactly “emotionally frigid.” Russia is just as much the country of spirited emotionalism — bear hugs, “das vadanya” and cheek kisses upon meeting, the boisterous all-night drinking and singing sessions, etc. Indeed, a specifically Russian recipe for a fish soup plays a central role in I AM LOVE as, among other things, a sexual symbol.
(5) If it is indeed the case that Emma’s Russia-melting affair and haircut mark a following-after of her daughter, then her daughter’s “I Am Liberated / I Am Love” haircut is occasioned and necessitated by … what?
I’ve never published in a high-brow film journal, but if this is the kind of sloppiness with argument and consistency that is typical and/or tolerated, one is almost glad.