Director Luca Guadagnino obviously had Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard” in mind when he and his three co-screenwriters fashioned this account of the wrenching changes the passage of the generational torch brings to a wealthy Italian family. But while he certainly gets the surface right—this is one of the most visually stunning films of the year—from an emotional perspective the narrative falls flat.

“I Am Love” begins with a domestic birthday dinner in honor of family patriarch Edoardo Recchi (Gabriele Ferzetti). He’s the head of an industrial firm who announces he’s passing the operation over to his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), a stern, rigid man married to Emma (Tilda Swinton), the elegant Russian wife whom he’d fallen in love with during a trip to Moscow and brought back to Milan. Of their three children, the elder Edoardo expresses a partiality for his namesake, the younger Edoardo (Flavio Parenti), though he’s certainly not at odds with the other two, Gianluca (Mattia Zaccaro) and Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher).

During the meal a visitor appears at the villa—Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), who’d bested the younger Edoardo in a race earlier in the day. A talented chef, Antonio’s brought a cake he’s baked as a gesture of friendship, which Edoardo happily accepts.

Some months later, the elder Edoardo has died and Tancredi is running the company. Elisabetta, who’s studying art in London, confides in a letter that she’s fallen in love with another woman, and the younger Edoardo has developed a bond with Antonio, with whom he announces his plans to go into partnership to open a new restaurant. Before they do, Emma and her mother-in-law Allegra (Marisa Berenson) go for lunch to where Antonio’s currently working—his father’s place—and Emma is transported by the ravishing dish he sets before her.

That physical reaction to Antonio’s food is merely prelude to Emma’s affair with Antonio, whom she finds as irresistible—and as succulent—as his dishes. While they’re getting it on, in scenes of intimacy in which both actors refuse to spare themselves, Tancredi and Gianluca are preparing to sell the family business to an Indian-American entrepreneur who argues that even the worst of events (war, for instance) can bring positive change. (He’s like a soft-spoken version of Gordon Gekko.)

That prospect disturbs Edoardo, who sees it, perhaps romantically, as a betrayal of all his grandfather had stood for. And when he sees similar disloyalty in his mother, he reacts in a way that brings tragedy to the family.

The “change of an era” theme, and its effect on “the old nobility,” as it were, is one that’s worked well in films before, not only in Visconti’s classic but in “The Magnificent Ambersons.” In this case, however, the treatment is too choppy and opaque to muster much emotional power—even in a denouement that should be heart-wrenching. That’s certainly not the fault of Swinton, who as usual gives herself over so completely to her role that it hardly seems a performance at all. The rest of the cast is perfectly acceptable, but none of them match her.

One can, of course, content oneself with the visuals, which are extraordinarily beautiful from the first shots of snow-covered Milan to the very close. Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography and Francesca di Mottola’s production design are simply exquisite, and the score by minimalist composer John Adams, following in the footsteps of Philip Glass, is strangely moving, though hardly unobtrusive.

But “I Am Love” is a film that invites comparison to past masterworks, and it fails to match them.