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MOVIE REVIEW: Pretentious 'I Am Love' only offers pretty scenes

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

I Am Love

(R)

1 1/2 out of 4 stars

It usually takes until late fall for this to happen, but "I Am Love" -- a pretentious and melodramatic art film overflowing with lofty, award-seeking aspirations -- is this years' first "the emperor has no clothes on" release. Not in the last 12 months have so many "experts" clamored and lauded something so strikingly below average.

Far removed from Hollywood social and power circles, recent Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton ("Michael Clayton") -- based solely on a near-perfect backlog of stellar performances -- is probably the only reason "I Am Love" ever made it over to this side of the pond. For the duration of the movie, Swinton speaks Italian and Russian (languages she learned just for this role), is often seen in the nude or something close to it and is put through the kind of emotional wringer the Academy regularly drools and fawns over. If Swinton doesn't get an Oscar nomination for this performance it will be a huge shock to everybody, especially to her.

For the first 30 minutes, writer/director Luca Guadagnino distracts the audience with Italian familial rituals and sumptuous visuals mirroring the first two "Godfather" movies. A heavily populated winter gathering, bathed in deep oranges and blacks and peppered with private, off-to-the-side conversations leads us to believe something BIG is about to happen, but it never does.

Another 30 minutes -- this time in the spring with a brighter color palate -- comes and goes and still there's nothing -- unless you consider one of the minor characters coming out of the closet something.

Just about when you're ready to throw in the viewing towel, the movie's sole tidbit of friction emerges, and while mildly scandalous it's not all that interesting or shocking. Like the earlier coming out event, it is sexual in nature but isn't nearly as erotic or earth-shattering as Guadagnino makes it out to be.

The director attempts to lend this story wrinkle heavy gravitas by including a scene that is laughably overreaching. Two characters make love in midday on a sunlit mountainside and share screen time with birds, bees and exotic flowers -- most notably a Venus flytrap. It is accompanied with a swelling, operatic score and images of sweaty flesh shot so close up the viewer can't distinguish what body parts are shown or even the gender of said parts. The ham-handed symbolism here is a joke and not the least bit stimulating. Let's call it nature porn.

Having reached a point from which no one could possibly recover, Guadagnino turns to a clunky food metaphor where one character can recognize the secretive behavior of another based on the soup they're served. Serious bodily injury ensues and you don't know whether you should gasp in shock or laugh uncontrollably.

Guadagnino is moderately competent with the aesthetics -- which go far in foreign-language art movies -- but he can't punch his way out of a wet sack with the story. Without much dialogue, the last scene plays out like an extended European fashion video with lots of huffing, puffing and heavy-footed, phantom exits.

You'll have no clue what just happened but it will at least look good -- just like an obtuse, bloated and superfluous European film should.

Presented in Italian and occasional Russian with English subtitles. (Magnolia)