The much-praised new film I Am Love (lo sono l’amore) is homage to the stunning Scottish actor Tilda Swinton, who planted its seeds and cultivated them for eleven years. In 1999 Swinton made a movie with her friend, the relatively unknown Italian writer-director Luca Guadagnino, and they began a conversation about love, in life and in film. Over the years the conversation morphed into I Am Love: a 21st-century social melodrama about class and forbidden love that evokes the style of Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind and Luchino Visconti’s eponymous 1963 adaptation of Lampedusa’s remarkable novel, The Leopard.

I Am Love centers on two generations of the Recchi family, haute bourgeois Milanese who made their money in textiles. Tancredi Recchi (Pippo Delbono) is an art collector and son of the family patriarch. On a trip to Russia, he picks up a beautiful woman (Swinton) as he would a painting, names her Emma, and makes her his wife and the mistress of his palazzo. There, she is an outsider, locked into the empty routines of upper-class life.

Swinton and Guadagnino enlisted the energies of many friends in making the film, including the great contemporary composer John Adams (Doctor Atomic), who allowed them to choose selections from throughout his career, and Yorick Le Saux, who was brought in for the ambitious cinematography. Swinton not only helped to generate the artistic inspiration behind I Am Love, but also helped to promote and finance it.

Swinton considers herself a filmmaker, not just an actress. She learned her creative approach during her nine-year apprenticeship with the late Derek Jar man, a maker of low-budget experimental films. Jarman, who was gay, invested his work with the politics of his sexual identity. Together, they developed Swinton’s distinctive performance style: rather than playing a part, she explores, on-camera, her own private and public identity. One imagines that the time with Jarman turned Swinton, a self-described ugly duckling as a teenager (nearly six feet tall, thin and gawky, with a pale complexion and carrot-colored hair), into the confident, androgynous swan she has become.

Credit for showcasing Swinton’s newfound persona, however, goes to British director Sally Potter, whose 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf ’s Orlando offered the actress a perfect vehicle. Orlando lives for 400 years of English history: the same consciousness taking up new identities and changing from a man to a woman. The Swinton-Potter collaboration became a cult classic, and Swinton joined the growing ranks of androgynous celebrities who have made cross-dressing glamorous.

When Jarman died of AIDS in 1994, Swinton’s film career stalled briefly. She did some performance art (sleeping in a plastic box in London’s Serpentine Museum) and worked as a fashion model with avant-garde designers.

In 1996 she renewed her cinematic efforts, teaming up with Susan Streitfeld on the extraordinary Female Perversions. Streitfeld, who directed and co-wrote, wrapped a plot around a nonfiction book by Louise Kaplan, a feminist psychoanalyst who argues that the male-dominated Freudians misunderstood the female “perversions.” Kaplan saw perversions driven by desperation as much as by erotic impulse. In the film, Swinton’s Eve, a trial lawyer on the verge of being named a judge, is driven to risk-taking, bisexual adventures that could scandalize the legal reputation she has worked to achieve. In collaboration with Streitfeld, Swinton invented and acted the part: a woman in a man’s world, sexy and vulnerable, not the cool and androgynous look that had made her famous. Swinton’s role in Perversions opened Hollywood to her, and she went on to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Michael Clayton (2007).

In making I am Love, Swinton returned to her Jarman, pre-industrial roots. Unfortunately the director of this film is her protégé, not her mentor. Guadagnino may be a modern master, as Swinton says, but his film is so focused on the wonder of its lead actor that the other characters, played by relatively unknown Italians, and even Emma are ill-defined.

Emma has escaped the chains of wealth and maternal obligation, but will she find love with a man half her age?

Typical of the film’s tilt toward Swinton is the scene in which Emma discovers that her daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) is a lesbian. Guadagnino crafted this moment entirely for Swinton. As Emma picks up the family dry-cleaning, one of her routines, the elderly storeowner hands her a DVD he found in the clothing. Inside the case, Emma discovers a letter from Elisabetta to her older brother Edo (Flavio Parenti) about her joyful discovery that she is gay. Although Emma has locked away all her emotions, this revelation demands a response: a nonjudgmental look of curiosity crosses her face—nothing more. A long shot follows of the lonely mother walking up the stairs of the Milan cathedral through its forest of steeples. Architecture, sculpture, and setting substitute for emotion. Some cineastes will appreciate the muted nuance; other viewers may dismiss it as filler, a distraction from what should have been the psychological momentum of the melodrama. In either case, Swinton has this important moment alone. Guadagnino gives us the actress amidst the splendor of Milan, not a mother interacting with her daughter in what might have been an unforgettable moment of acceptance and connection.

In the first half of I Am Love, Emma is detached from everyone. The chief factotum of the household, she arranges the seating chart for the scion’s birthday, supervises the servants, and then removes herself rather than socialize with her family. Reviewers have filled the psychological vacuum with invented psychodynamics: Emma is facing the empty-nest syndrome; Emma’s story is a retelling of Lady Chatterley’s Lover; Emma had no idea what she was getting into when she came from Russia. These hypotheses are all believable, but because Emma is so isolated, it is impossible to be sure.

Despite the film’s shortcomings, it is packed with delightful references. There is a brief scene where Emma lies in bed watching Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, the story of interracial homosexual love and AIDS that earned Tom Hanks an Oscar. Her husband changes the channel to a newscast. Demme is one of Guadagnino’s favorite American directors, and the quotation from his movie points to another kind of forbidden love, touching on the basic theme of I Am Love. In another scene, Emma pursues her own forbidden love, Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), down the streets of San Remo. The cinematography is reminiscent of Vertigo—the camera tells the story—and Swinton wears her hair in Kim Novak’s style.

Some visual moments also have considerable force: the opening scene of snow falling on the streets and statuary of Milan; the penultimate, in which the statuary appears to weep in the rain. But others are surprisingly precious and self-indulgent, as when Emma and Antonio have sex in the hills of San Remo. There is little chemistry; Gabbriellini is an unknown actor playing an undeveloped character. The camera moves between the lovers’ naked bodies and the insects performing nature’s work of insemination. The scene climaxes in an ecstatic explosion mediated by Adams’s music. The music, which takes over the film when Emma starts chasing after Antonio in San Remo, is melodic and operatic, but in this scene, with Guadagnino’s cutting and pasting, it is reminiscent of the Prokofiev of Peter and the Wolf.

The melodrama revolves around Emma’s relationship with her favorite son, Edo, who is so diminished in Guadagnino’s depiction that one struggles to fill in the missing pieces. Edo marries a woman he seems not to love. Perhaps he is still in love with his mother, but his affections run toward Antonio, who is not only his mother’s lover, but also his friend and an ambitious, budding chef. Edo dotes on Antonio—whom he seems to care for more than he does his pregnant wife—and plans to help him finance a restaurant in the hills of San Remo. Meanwhile, Antonio has transformed the unemotional Emma: she feels sudden joy when she eats prawns that he has cooked especially for her. The affair that follows has the same quality. The warm-hearted Russian woman escapes her frozen shell and recovers pleasure in life.

The tensions peak when Edo discovers the affair. Is he outraged by his mother’s infidelity? Jealous because she has stolen the man he loves? Edo seems to feel his mother betrayed the special love he expected from her as the favored child. He confronts her; they argue; he turns away, trips, and falls to mortal injury. Will she be stricken with guilt, torn between her duties to her grieving family and her love for Antonio?

After the funeral, when her husband tells her they have to stick together, she declares, “You no longer know who I am,” and confesses her love for Antonio. His reply: “You do not exist.” While the family grieves in the rooms below, the trusted maid packs Emma’s Fendi couture in suitcases. Emma takes none of them, and instead appears in front of her family dressed in a tracksuit. The camera looks to the family and then back to where she stood. She has vanished; she no longer exists as a Recchi.

Emma has escaped the chains of wealth and maternal obligation, but will she find love with a man half her age? Toward the end of the credits, two figures huddle in a cave. We can barely make out Emma and Antonio, lost souls clinging together in a primitive shelter. Forbidden love troubles the world and is troubled by it. But Swinton, I think, believes it might work.

Swinton accepts that every creative film is in some sense autobiographical, so it might be noted that she has a happy family with a male companion and children. She also has a relationship with a younger man. Like Emma she is living life to the fullest as she fights for her own singular identity. And unlike Emma, the brilliant Swinton rebels against all the confining conventions of class and gender. When an admiring interviewer suggested that she would one day be a dame, Swinton replied, “A dame? I’d so much rather be a knight.”