Perhaps Kate Chopin’s most heavily anthologized story, The Story of an Hour, describes in under 1000 words a woman’s reaction to the news of her husband’s unexpected death. I’m going to spoil here, so take 5 minutes to link and read it if you’re not cool with that.
After spasms of grief, the accepted and expected response, the character sits quietly, at which point she waits in terror for something “approaching to possess her.” The thing hits, and after some resistance, her body and soul arc up to receive it with erotic abandon, and she sits in the aftermath facing a window open on a spring day, breathing deeply. She doesn’t need a cigarette.
The thing is joy, a joy in her freedom that is so alien she wonders if it’s “monstrous.” Chopin knew her audience; the woman will quickly pay for that joy with her death. Oddly enough, Chopin’s own mother experienced the same story but with a happy ending. Chopin’s autocratic father died in a train accident, which sounds extraordinarily similar to the one that opens the brilliant Housekeeping. Shortly before his death, he had sent his pre-school age daughter away to boarding school. Biographers speculate that young Kate was both too friendly with the black servants in the Louisiana household and also that her mother, a half-French beauty much younger than her spouse, was deemed overly doting in a suspiciously European manner. Widow Chopin, far from dying “of joy that kills,” thrived in her new weeds. Naturally, the first thing she did was bring the kid home. Freedom must have been both sweet and savory.
The audience hasn’t changed all that much from Chopin’s era; in fiction, women are still expected to be punished when they decide they can do just fine man-free. Thelma and Louise pay famously with their lives, but Hollywood metes out a more subtle sentence to most protagonists: marriage. Screw independence, little lady; a good roll in the hay with Mr. Right and a big white dress (it disturbs me that expensive weddings are the climax and sometimes primary settings of so many current movies) will set you straight and whisk those scary ideas of power and the satisfaction that goes with it right out of your pretty little head.
Increasingly – how telling is this of the current state of obesity in America? – food is becoming only slight less important as a distraction in movies than sex. It gets them into the theater as the first word in Eat Pray Love (where, naturally, spirituality gets conveniently sandwiched in the middle; don’t worry folks, the sexy part’s coming; you can go buy Raisinettes now, the God stuff won’t last too long) and in the half good/half awful Julie and Julia (link is to my assessment, not to amazon; how I love the self-aggrandizement capabilities of the Internet).
On the surface, Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love fits right into this cubbyhole; one of the main publicity images is of a beautiful woman eating a shrimp that looks to be a very good shrimp indeed. But try to shove this glorious bird of paradise into a parakeet cage and you’re in for a world of hurt. Like Chopin’s protagonist, the movie’s Emma (Tilda Swinton – just her name is better than any adjective I can come up with) is sleepwalking through a marriage where she has seemingly everything, including a palazzo. You can imagine Chopin’s description of the husband – with a “face that had never looked save with love upon her” – applying here. But as her daughter defies convention and expectations with her own relationship, Emma realizes, while walking up to the roof of Milan Cathedral, how hollow she’s become. Like the Chopin story, the realization is enormous, complex; who knew joy could be so frightening?
Emma ends up pursuing a chef, a friend of her son’s. But here’s the difference: In Hollywood, this would be played for laughs: yet another cougar out to settle a score, usually with herself, to prove that she’s still Got It. It’s not just Emma’s hunger that gets awakened high above Milan; it’s the foundation-shaking realization that it’s not ok to starve herself. But she’s just not going to break her fast bingeing on junk as any red-blooded American would. You see, via Swinton’s performance, a woman feasting on beauty, seeing it clearly for the first time in years, possibly decades, and deciding that it’s not just ok for her to partake, it’s vital to life – and criminal to abstain further.
The movie itself is swoony, operatic without a trace of self-consciousness. In one almost stunningly brazen sequence, a passionate bee ravishing a flower is juxtaposed against Emma’s lovemaking. The edit demands complete commitment, and Guadagnino boldly submits. The guy is downright Byronic.
Emma pays a terrible price for her awakening, one much worse than those exacted in American movies, arguably worse than Thelma and Louise’s heroic plunge. Emma’s final choice in the movie is insane and absolutely right; she and the movie embody the great Kerouac quote:
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…..”
Love is worth it, worth dying for, worth risking and losing everything – but not because of some cute guy, or a big white dress, or even a great passion. Love, tenderly care for, you. You are love. And you are awake.