What could have been another staid movie about upper class infidelity is in fact transcendent. Credit to Tilda Swinton, whose subtle turn as disaffected Italian socialite Emma Recchi stems the tide of feistier past roles in “Michael Clayton” and “Burn After Reading.” Here she proves she’s as effortless as she is versatile.
The story is no less understated. Russian-born Emma has lived in Milan more than 20 years as the Italianized wife of wealthy textile manufacturer Tancredi (Pippo Delbono). Whatever her name was back in Russia, she’s forgotten. “Emma” is just what Tancredi calls her. No bridge exists between her present and past, save the fish soup ukha she cooks her adult son Edoardo (Flavio Parenti). But it would be a lazy observation to call Emma unhappy, or to say she suffers a woman’s mid-life crisis. Her dilemma is never that transparent.
Emma, we learn, is simply too human. When Edoardo’s young chef friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) prepares Emma a special dish of prawns, it provokes her sensuality. A lush cut-in shot of Emma’s mouth becomes the first of countless erotic moments made gripping by composer John Adams’ frenetic score. Emma and Antonio share the kind of idyllic love affair that should put ennui to rest: making love in the grass and sun, lips and skin scuttling adrift. All this until a poorly timed bowl of ukha gives way to tragedy.
Luca Guadagnino’s even-handed direction finds beauty in mundane moments — glances, breath, touch, pause. It’s a cinema of feeling, and an overdue return to old school Italian form.