The month of January is named after Janus, the Roman god of exits and entrances. Janus is most commonly depicted in ancient art as having two faces, one looking backwards while the other looks forward. Janus is also symbolic of changes and transformations. The prospect of exiting and entering, of endings and new beginnings, and of personal evolution is the crucial theme, the essence, of Luca Guadagnino’s “I Am Love.”
The film begins with a prominent Italian patriarch entering through the front door of his stately villa. The lighting is gray and there is snow on the ground. The camera frames the doorway from inside the villa and follows as he enters with regal grace. Through the open door, the snowy courtyard is visible. Various characters will cross the threshold of this doorway throughout the film. Some of these entrances and exits will be life-altering, and one climactic departure will be an exhilarating, if terrifying, flight of freedom—an exit from an old life and entrance into a new one.
The entirety of “I Am Love” is brimming with doorways being opened and shut. The camera peers through doorways and into rooms; sometimes, multiple rooms are visible through two or three doorways simultaneously in a mirror-like effect. In the first quarter of the film, most of these doorways belong in the villa of the Recchi family, where wife and mother Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton) spreads her maternal and wifely grace throughout the household. As a transplant from Russia, Emma has humble origins, and hints of her status as an outsider still linger in her occasional need for solitude; she takes solace in the company of Ida, the house’s caretaker, and she often helps her with household tasks.
As the film progresses, the images of opening and closing, entering and exiting, become both more subtle and more obvious. An example of a subtle but momentous opening is Emma’s opening of a CD that she finds in the pocket of her son’s jacket. Within this CD, she unfolds a postcard which contains a picture of a young woman. The postcard is from Betta, Emma’s daughter, and written to her brother Edo. Betta tells him that she is in love with another girl—the girl in the picture. On the front of the postcard, in bold, black letters, is the word love. Emma’s inadvertent discovery of her daughter’s newfound sexuality is perhaps the defining moment for her in the film—Emma’s own personal re-awakening. I say re-awakening because Emma is content with her life; she is in no way repressed. It is Emma’s sense of general happiness and fulfillment which makes her eventual entrance into a new life that much more poignant—the only excuse for her transformation is love.
Emma’s newfound love is for Antonio, an innovative, rustic chef, and her son’s best friend. After essentially making love to him through ingesting his delectable cuisine (in a scene that is now referred to as “prawnography”), she and Antonio finally consummate their desire for each other at his secluded hill-top villa. After their tryst, Antonio has a vivid and impassioned fantasy about Emma; it begins with the camera peering through a brick entranceway which leads to a double-doorway that opens into his restaurant kitchen—another door-within-a-door image. There is a quick jump-cut to a door ajar though which sunlight from the street streams into the kitchen, then a cut to Antonio looking over his shoulder through the windows of the kitchen’s double-doors. He peers through the circular window, sees nothing. He opens the door and walks through to find Emma there, waiting for him. She fervently drops her bags and they embrace and begin to make love. Antonio is jolted back to reality only when Edo walks through those very same doors.
With the overwhelming images of doorways within doorways, rooms opening into more rooms, it’s hard not to interpret this imagery as a metaphor for a Russian nesting doll—those little wooden dolls that continuously open up to reveal up to four smaller dolls inside, each decreasing in size. If you really want play the English-major’s-ridiculously-deep-analysis-game, Emma herself is an obvious metaphor for a Russian nesting doll. As the film and her love for Antonio progresses, we see her break free of a multitude of outer-shells. Emma begins as a loving, maternal mother and ideal Italian trophy-wife; but midway through the film, she transforms into an ardent lover whose Russian roots continuously begin to surface through her affair with Antonio. In fact, the foreplay of an almost ridiculously epic love scene (in which Emma and Antonio make love outside in the dirt among the creepy crawlies) has Antonio methodically undressing her, peeling back layer after layer of clothing until she stands before him completely naked and unadorned. In this moment, Emma’s physical body becomes a means of expressing her opening up, her release. To prove I’m not pulling this Russian nesting doll theory out of my ass, the very next scene after Antonio’s kitchen sex fantasy shows Emma listening to Betta’s CD in her room, where, lo and behold, the camera strategically lingers on four Russian nesting dolls sitting on her desk.
Near the end of the film, Emma’s love affair with Antonio is discovered by Edo, whose latent homo-erotic feelings for him become painfully clear. During a confrontation between Emma and Edo in which he disowns her as his mother, there is a freak accident, and Edo is killed. The last quarter of the film after Edo’s death is as sensational for its lack of dialogue as it is for the gruesome transformation of Tilda Swinton’s face; Emma’s once soft features disintegrate into a ghastly mask of pain. During Edo’s funeral, Emma walks as if in a trance into massive, empty cathedral, where, once inside, she stares through one of the many elaborately adorned doorways. She also catches sight of a bird as it flies in an out of the open windows above her. It is here, among numerous doorways and windows where grey light filters through every open crevice into the cathedral, where Emma confesses her love for Antonio to her husband; it is her place of catharsis, among these open doorways, windows, and even ceiling. Her husband coldly but rationally replies, “You don’t exist.” Emma does exist, but on a different plane from her previous life.
Until this point, the Recchi villa has been a place of closed doors and sealed shades; now, in the last, utterly breathtaking scene, we witness Emma making one last mad dash through the house before she makes her escape from her former life, wrenching open doors and bounding through them. As she heaves open her closet door, we have another stripping scene, as she, with the aid of Ida, tears off her mourning clothes, along with her jewelry and wedding ring—quite literally freeing herself from her previous existence. As Emma flees the household, she and Betta meet one last time, catching sight of each other through a large open doorway. Emma and her daughter, who sparked her metamorphosis, exchange a speechless moment of mutual love, hands over their hearts, mirrors of one another.
In the film’s first shot of the villa’s main entrance, we saw a patriarch entering in the snow; in the last shot, we see the very same open doorway leading out into the lush, sunlit summer to which Emma has escaped. The doorway that framed a procession of patriarchal tradition has become the portal for a woman who is entering into her own transformation sparked by love unparallel to anything she has felt before—hence, the film’s unabashed titled. “I Am Love” is singular proof that sometimes, doorways lead to much more than just another room.