What's in a name? Like the fabulously wealthy cousin of Flaubert's Emma Bovary, Emma Recchi is a wife and mother likewise surprised, and chastised, by joy.
As she plans the wedding of her son and accepts her daughter's lesbianism, Emma, an emigre Russian, recognizes that duty to family may not be as personally fulfilling as duty to self. Emma, like her daughter Betta, is likewise guilty of hiding her desire.
Without warning, passion floods Emma's soul, discomposes her impeccable demeanor, and inspires her (metaphorically and literally) to let her hair down.
This being Italy, the agent of Emma's transfiguration is food - specifically, an ambrosial prawn. (Believe me, when she nibbles that shrimp, you taste it, too.) Just one bite has the effect of vibrato on her womanhood, an excitement indicated by John Adams' palpitating music. Emma feels that whoever made this morsel understands essences, which reawaken the earthy Russian soul Emma left behind when she married into the lofty Recchi clan.
The chef is Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), best friend of Emma's beloved son, Edo (Flavio Parenti). The implication is that Antonio's artisanal food makes the industrialist's wife reconnect with her roots. The second implication is that having sampled Antonio's fruit of the sea, Emma will want to sample his forbidden fruit.
Fifty years ago, cinematic symbolism such as this was known as the "Come dressed as the sick soul of Europe movie." In its portrait of an enfeebled aristocracy abdicating its authority to vital artists, Guadagnino's film likewise depicts a Eurozone in transition. Should the continent be a closely held corporation, like the Recchis, or a loose archipelago of artists, like Antonio and his kind?
But mostly this displaced-Oedipus tale, in which the Jocasta figure seduces not her son but his best friend, is an ode to Swinton, the otherworldly Scottish actress who won an Oscar for her role as the anxious corporate mouthpiece in Michael Clayton.
As the Sleeping Beauty wakened by passion in I Am Love, Swinton suggests an inanimate statue brought to life by a kiss. Love brings a rosy flush to those alabaster cheeks - and also the punishment of the gods.
Even though the emotions are overripe and overheated, I Am Love - which begins in a palazzo and ends in a cave - never feels overdone.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/.