‘Io sono L’ amore’, or ‘I am love’, is the self-consciously, meticulously rapturous film by Italian film director Luca Guadagnino that had the art house cinema crowd in a flutter a few years ago: the ‘must-see’, gorgeously romantic, ‘exquisitely crafted’ work of the season that had the critics, and some of my friends, swooning, and foaming, at the gills.
The story of an aristocratic Milanese Russian emigrée, played by the redoubtable Tilda Swinton (acted in Italian, with a slight Russian accent; no mean feat), this is the story of a pale and beautiful, yet strangely unpresent woman, the matriarch and bedrock of her family, lost in her own numb, unregimented life, who comes gradually undone, erotically and socially, at the hands of a brilliant young chef.
A friend of her son’s, the handsome man’s independence, artistry, naturalness and almost guileless, masculine simplicity stand in such contrast to the glassed and gilded cage she finds herself in on a day to day basis that she surrenders, perhaps inevitably, to a honey-lensed, edenic ecstacy of eroticism in his hillside flower garden; making love in the guiltless Italian outdoors as butterflies flit above their skin and fronds and eyelashes bat with sunlight; nature; desire. A latter day Lady Chatterly cleaving to her young, bearded lover in a delectable, unfettered paradise that is aeons away from the gendered rigmarole of her life in the family home.
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I was assured I would like this film; no – I would LOVE IT: it was totally up my street ( am I that predictable? probably ), but I am never very good at being willed, or expected, or worse, told to love something – I always buck against it in childish rebellion or else find it can’t possibly meet my expectations – and in all honesty, though the film had an undeniably gorgeous sheen and the production and set design were certainly easy on the eye, ultimately I have to say that it left me cold, and Duncan too actually (and, incidentally, Nina also, the one who had sent it to me in the first place – not because she particularly liked it herself, just for the cinematic, indulgent, hell of it.)
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In any case I was completely unmoved, to the point of irritation, almost; the scenes of gustatory sensuality ( she is seduced, in the beginning, by his food) seeming too obvious, somehow – the swiftness of her adultery too much of an improbability. It was all just too……..perfect. Too earnest and wilfull, or simply just not my personal cup of colour-drenched, lurid tea.
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Mona Di Orio’s Vanille, a very well regarded vanilla perfume, had also been highly recommended by everyone and anyone who likes vanilla scents: a new departure; divine; the only vanilla I can wear; the best vanilla of all time, you have to try it you have to try it and so on and so forth, and so I was intrigued, to say the least, by this hugely heralded vanillic masterpiece, from the equally posthumously fêted Nombres D’Or collection, quite desperate to smell it, and I must say that the first laying of this delicate, gold-dusted scent on my skin elicited a small exhalation of pleasure, an ahh….ah yes I see. Another of her ‘difficult’ perfumes, une vanille compliquée.
Original? Certainly. A sensitive, emotional perfume (like many of the late perfumer’s creations), most definitely, but like the film, so delicately, painstakingly crafted – it didn’t move me at all personally.
A feeling of appreciation for its skill, certainly, and integrity, yes, but not something to touch the Narcissus’s cold, critical heart in reality.
So there you have it.
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But I am afraid that now I have to retract what I have written above.
One Saturday morning, for no apparent reason, I suddenly felt an inexplicable urge to watch ‘I Am Love again’.
Even though I had hated it.
And this time……
Wow, it seared right through me, this time, like the love-filled adrenaline of the characters in the film.
I was RAPT.
As I write this I am playing the soundtrack, on loop, and my heart is beating faster as a result: I am feeling heightened, alive, even on this gloomy, rainy Friday.
The blurb on the DVD case, and my friends, had told me, I would be breathless, and I was: in tears, actually.
The film, and the perfume too, in truth, are actually really really quite beautiful. I just needed time (and a big enough sample to try it properly- thanks, Jasmine) to come to this realization.
Where I had initially found the film to be too obviously in ‘good taste’, with nothing left to chance, on second viewing, to my surprise, I fell in love; with the house the family lives in and its surroundings (exquisite! ), the exhilarating soundtrack by English composer John Adams; the kinetic propulsion that runs through the film, and the sense of exciting liberation, as both mother and daughter release themselves from the patriarchal chains that have been binding the family for generations.
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The perfume, also, on repeated wearings, really stands up; it is a very sensitive, and poetic creation that seems to contain a story: I may be stretching the film/perfume analogy a little (though I don’t think so; I can feel it ), but Vanille struck me, as I rewatched the film, as having several affinities with Tilda Swinton’s character, Emma Recchi.
On the surface she is composed, refined, brittle: almost burnished, like the peppery, protracted petitgrain and bitter orange top accord in the perfume; the aristocratic mellow of ylang-laced rhum, as she graciously hosts the grand family celebration at the beginning of the film (carrying obvious echoes of Visconti’s Götterdämmerung): a liquid, ambery gold that flows under the citruses and spices like meniscus.
This stage of the scent, which I really like, has an almost palpably nervous sense to it; a refined heart that is clearly ‘thoughtful’ (unusual in a vanilla perfume, where comfort and/or seduction are usually key); a lightly cloved vetiver giving further, grounding, dignified resonance ( a word that also, applies equally and strongly to both Tilda Swinton and Mona Di Orio herself). .
And yet. We sense the warmth and sexuality that is suppressed, about to spill over, and this is the rich, sweet, mellifluous extract of true Madagascar vanilla beating in the heart of the perfume that, like Emma, is waiting unconsciously to be released.
The guaic wood and sandalwood ( probably the main protagonist in the perfume, I would say) provide some brakes on fully fledged abandonment, but once she does let go, and fully embraces her lover, Emma efflulges, and blooms, and sheds her restraining skins of politesse and hardness, revealing her inner self.
The vanilla that finally emerges from her, then, is of obviously high quality, quite sweet, quite tenacious – I could still smell it on my skin the next morning, and this combination of deep sensuality and refracted refinement could be truly beautiful on the right person whose skin was predestinated to unlock its secrets : I would love to have a friend or colleague who wore this scent; the connections such a scent could create in others’ minds – beautiful, but mysterious, are what perfumery is all about.
Mona Di Orio Vanille is not a scent I could wear myself. I do not really like sandalwood, especially in conjunction with vanilla, and that beginning, though ingenious, is not what I personally like to have in a vanilla perfume ( I prefer simplicity ). At the same time, like the film which I have come to really love (it is destined, I think, to become one of ‘my films’, those I suddenly crave as much as a person craves food), I have come to realize that this perfume is raved about for good reason.
It has delicacy. It has soul. And, like the film by Luca Guadagnino, it is primarily an affecting, and voluptuously executed, elegant work of heartfelt, contemporary art.