I Am Love, a film birthed out of years and years of conversations between actress Tilda Swinton and director Luca Guadagnino, is a basket of contradictions: it is at once a heaving mess of hugely melodramatic situations and emotions and visual cues that are at times presented with inordinate subtlety, and it all hinges on a performance that feels at times over-thought and stiff, except that the character herself is constantly performing, and not always well, meaning that a stiff performance is actually the best possible way to evoke the woman's place in her world.

Of course, it's Swinton herself playing the lead, a Russian woman named Emma who years ago married into the fantastically wealthy Milanese Recchi family, a textile dynasty. We meet her after many years in the Recchi fold, right around the turn of the millennium, at about the moment that the paterfamilias Edoardo (Gabriele Ferzetti) is retiring, leaving his company in the hands of his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and grandsons Edoardo, Jr. (Flavio Parenti). From there on, things just get as complex as all hell, with Emma and Tancredi's daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) returning from a sojourn in England and France, having just discovered that she's a lesbian; while the younger Edoardo has a friend that he's busy showing off to the family, Antonio (Edoardo Gabriellini), a great chef whose meat catches Emma's eye, if you know what I mean. If you don't, I am using a bawdy pun for his penis.

Even if I wanted to explain what happens in I Am Love, I'm not absolutely certain that I could; the film holds back a lot of plot information, instead privileging moments of outstanding emotion and feeling. No, that's not even quite right: it privileges moments of sensory perception. For those of us tired of movies shot the same old way, with lots of medium-width shot/reverse shots interspersed with some two-shots and close-ups, I Am Love has novelty squarely on its side, at the very least, and "novelty" almost doesn't go far enough to describe the crazy visionary madness that Guadagnino and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux bring to bear. I almost can't put into word how borderline insane their use of camera movements and offscreen space is, framing the movie's sets from a perspective that seems resolutely unyoked to any particular character; it as though the camera is some kind of alien force muscling its way onto set and peering around madly at everything interesting from wildly unexpected corners. For as much as it is about anything, I Am Love is about the way things look, capturing the exquisite sets (the production was designed by Francesca Balestra Di Mottola, the sets decorated by Monica Sironi) and costumes (by Antonella Cannarozzi) with infinite texture and tactility; to say nothing of how pornishly the filmmakers capture the fine details of the gourmet food prepared by Antonio (I Am Love gives Ratatouille serious competition, visually anyway, as the most foodie-friendly motion picture of the last ten years), or of Swinton and Gabbriellini's naked bodies, captured in devastatingly microscopic detail during their first ecstatic lovemaking session: it's not even erotic, really, but a heavily stylised representation that's at once both impressionistic and expressionistic (and, for good measure, intercut with minute close-ups of plants and insects - it sound corny as shit, and maybe it is, but for my tastes it worked wonderfully).

"The visual depiction of the ecstatic"; that might be the best and only way I can sum up the film's effect in one pithy phrase. We are carried into the picture on Emma's shoulders - though it is not the case that I Am Love is a character study as we usually mean it - and she is a woman who is perpetually outside the hermetic, old-money Ricchi's; however much she tries to love the family, she is never of them, which we find in the very first sequence, as she plans Edoardo senior's birthday party. She acts like hired help; moreover, the only person besides her children that she genuinely seems to connect with is the hired help, the housekeeper Ida (Maria Paiato). Swinton's performance threads a fine needle: mannered in a way that is somewhat frustrating and off-putting, yet it perfectly describes the emotional staleness that Emma feels in the face of her husband's world - for example, her shaky Italian is obvious and distracting, until we wonder how much of it is the actress and how much is the character. It is a bit alienating, compared to some of her great, fleshy performances in the likes of Michael Clayton and Julia; but demanding that Swinton performs at the level of her work in Julia every time is grotesquely unfair (it must be pointed out, that while Emma is the protagonist, the rest of the Recchi clan is depicted with a great deal of precision both in the screenplay, and in the hands of a great cast).

The main thrust of the story, then, is the birth of passion; this is what Emma and her children experience in their own ways, and what happens to them threatens to bring the Recchi family to ruin. But the decline of a wealthy family is not the purpose of I Am Love, rather it is to present in richly cinematic terms the burgeoning awareness of deep emotions, as stimulated by love, or by great food, or by whatever. Hence the odd, emphatic cinematography and the darting, jerky editing; hence the thundering soundtrack, plucking from here and there but mostly from the work of the excellent contemporary American composer John Adams (who is sometimes unfairly thought of as the lesser-known Philip Glass, though his work is in a much bolder, operatic register), who provides some original compositions as well. It is broad and obvious; yet it is tightly controlled most of the time, so tightly that it hardly seems fair to call it a melodrama.

The time that isn't most of the time finds Guadagnino overplaying his hand and pushing I Am Love from glorious, humanist bigness into sheer messiness; though even the messiness has a grandeur that is seductive in its own way. Still, its at these points that we start to notice that the emperor's clothes are a bit on the translucent side. It seems impossible to avoid comparing I Am Love to Lucino Visconti's The Leopard, even though the two films have very little in common besides a wealthy old family being destroyed by personal crises; yet while that film carefully frames its melodrama in a wide-ranging historical context, I Am Love makes no pretensions to context or society, despite its very deliberate chronological placement. Even the other 2009 Italian melodrama that casts its narratives in throbbing operatic terms, Vincere, manages to "mean" more than I Am Love - though really, what more does it need to mean than presenting the glorious moment when closed-off people learn how to feel? And so back to where we started: I Am Love heaves with emotion, yet it is mechanical and formally precise; it is warm and chilly in the same breath; it is crazy and over-the-top, and yet even its worst moments are hopelessly magnetic. It is grand opera, cinema style; and I have never yet had a bad word for opera.