Like a Food Network production of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the latest from director Luca Guadagnino depicts the awakening of a repressed aristocrat’s appetites through her discovery of the pleasures of gourmet cuisine and great sex. The lady in this case is Emma Recchi, and she is brought to vivid life by Tilda Swinton in perhaps the most extraordinary performance of her considerable career.
In fact, I think the time has come to say it: Tilda Swinton is the new Meryl Streep. Can anyone of her generation claim to match the depth, breadth and diversity of the characters the Oscar-winning actress has created over the course of the past quarter century, or the consistent intelligence she’s brought to every part, large or small?
For her role as the Russian-born wife of a wealthy Milanese industrialist, Swinton didn’t just learn to speak fluent Italian — she learned to speak fluent Italian with the residual hint of a Russian accent. Early on, Emma presides over preparations for a lavish family gathering with the chilly precision of a military strategist. The setting is the Recchis’ magnificent villa; the occasion, the birthday of the powerful clan’s aging paterfamilias, Edoardo Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti), who makes a surprising announcement. He has decided to retire and turn his empire over to his son, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono). The bombshell is that he’s also giving it to his grandson, Edo (Flavio Parenti).
“It will take two men to replace me,” he declares, only half jokingly, after announcing that he doesn’t want to die and never will, because he’ll live on in the Recchi business.
Fast-forward a few months. The old man has passed away, and his son, Emma’s humorless husband, is already well into a deal to unload the enterprise. Her son, Edo, doesn’t appear interested in the family business’ fate. He’s too busy making plans to open a restaurant in the countryside with his new friend, a gifted chef named Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini).
Guadagnino’s film is not only a marvel of art direction — honestly, one of the most exquisite screen compositions you’ll ever encounter — but a masterful exercise in storytelling. I’d have to burrow well down into Margot’s space to touch on even a fraction of its evocative subplots and suggest the intricacy of its narrative circuitry. Space permits mention of only the most significant plot point.
That is the relationship that develops against all odds between Emma and the young culinary wizard. Watch closely as, for the first time, she samples a dish he’s prepared, a deceptively slight presentation of prawns with risotto. Her face registers surprise, then wonder and then an ecstasy that borders on the sexual. Clearly this is a man on intimate terms with pleasure and the secret pathways that wind to it.
Their passionate affair is straight out of D.H. Lawrence, complete with the breaching of class barriers and coupling al fresco. But it is interrupted by a tragic turn in the third act that is not quite worthy of this film and, in fact, feels more than a bit contrived. It’s the solitary misstep in an otherwise flawless production.
The production boasts an embarrassment of riches, from the lush cinematography of Yorick Le Saux to the superb casting to John Adams’ suitably sumptuous score (including excerpts from his operas) to Francesca Di Mottola’s inspired production design. Stir in a tour de force performance from one of the cinema’s most gifted talents, and you’ve got the recipe for one of the year’s most delectable treats.
* Running Time: 120 minutes
* Rated: R
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