I Am Love is a lavish, sweeping melodrama that is as bold and romantic as its title suggests. It marks a reunion of sorts between Tilda Swinton and her director Luca Guadagnino, who worked together on his debut The Protaganists, as well as several shorts. Swinton plays Emma, the Russian wife of a wealthy Italian businessman. As the film begins, she is seemingly content in her surroundings; she has children who she loves dearly, more money than anyone could possibly spend and a fine social standing in upper class Italian society. When she finds out that her daughter is having a relationship with another woman, however, she finds herself on an accidental journey of self discovery and escape. This journey leads her into the arms of one of her son’s friends, a charming chef named Antonio. They begin an affair that will ultimately have shattering consequences for her family.
It’s a film that is unashamedly old-fashioned, soaked as it is in cinematic influences like Antonioni, Hitchcock and master of the classic Hollywood melodrama Douglas Sirk. Guadagnino describes himself as ‘a stalker of other people’s movies, and I enjoy very much a film where I can see a director working with the history of cinema’. Yet for all its classical romance, I Am Love also has a darker undercurrent; the camera may indulge in the extravagance of upper class Italian society, but it is also critical of it; there is an unspoken assumption that the family’s wealth is built upon exploitation, perhaps going as far back as Italian fascism. Guadagnino pretty much confirms this when he says ‘I believe very strongly, that a large amount of money in the hands of one or a few people is always the result of very dark lives’. It’s clear that this is a very modern critique of consumerism.
‘I’m very interested in this idea of the ultra ideology that capitalism is. It’s not true that we don’t live in the times of ideologies just because of the fall of the communist and socialist ideologies. I would say that we live in this ultra-ideological time, where capital is becoming more and more rotten and decadent, and aggressive. I do not believe that capital is key, it is in a way, irrelevant, even though it’s super-strong. I’m very interested to try and understand why people believe they are in need of things, in need of consumption.’ Emma’s efforts to transcend this, therefore, make her a very unusual sort of rebel. ‘Capitalism is all about making people live in denial of their emotions. With Emma, she is kind of the anti-capitalist, because she doesn’t need anything. Imagine if the majority of the people who continue to buy, buy, buy stopped their need to buy, this would be a sort of revolution. I’m looking forward to it!’
Swinton is one of the driving forces behind the film, acting as both the producer and the star. Guadagnino has nothing but good words to say about his collaborator. ‘We are working on about seven different projects together. To work with her is a pleasure, she’s a pal, so elegant and so beautiful and so inspiring to everyone around her.’ When asked if the two had any creative disagreements he simply shakes his head and responds with a smile – ‘Never.’
Speaking with Swinton, it’s easy to see why Guadagnino speaks so highly of her. Strikingly tall, elegant and articulate, she’s a rare actor who speaks more about the film as a whole rather than her place in it. She began by talking about the genesis of the film’s story.
Scott: I’ve heard that this is a project you’ve been working on for eleven years…
Tilda: Eleven years ago is when we started to talk about this kind of cinema, but we started talking about this particular story about seven years ago. We made a film called The Love Factory, which was an interview between us and we talked about love in that interview. Within that conversation we started to kick around the idea of love, and the revolution of love, and how radical an idea it is, and about what real love is, as opposed to some romantic contrived mechanism, and I suppose that’s where the story of I Am Love sort of began.
Which came first, the character or the story?
We wanted to make a film about a woman of a certain age and we wanted to look at the revolution of love. She had to be in a situation where love is an antagonistic thing, so we had to think about her as a sort of imported wife in a family in a very closed society. So what would that closed society be? Maybe some sort of high capitalism, these really particular grids, and so we began to think about the issue of love in that particular milieu. Real love as we think of it, as we define it, as I define it, is self revelation and unedited experience. And to a certain extent that can count as loneliness as well, so that what real love is when two people can say to each other ‘I’m lonely and I see your loneliness, and I’m not going to try and mess with it, so let’s just keep each other company.’ That is to my money so much more what real love is about than this romantic concept of ‘one-ness’, which is like editing sections of one person that don’t fit with the other. And in thinking of that milieu, that sort of high capitalist milieu, predicated on editing experiences, predicated on denial – particularly the rich, who have to put up smokescreens around how they got rich, and who they’re exploiting – so we imagined the kind of honesty bomb of love dropped into that milieu. And this is the way in which the story came about.
It’s a very old idea, someone trapped in a loveless marriage, and the film is very classical in lots of ways.
It’s almost a formalist film in a way. It’s inspired by a kind of classical cinema that we revere, but we also wanted to try and find a way to make it modern. But the truth is that milieu still goes on, and it is a modern story because it’s authentic. That class is built on an old model, it’s a very old idea, the idea of being rich.
There’s a lot of references to classic filmmakers – one of the smaller ones that I picked up on was the knot in Emma’s hair that recalls Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s Vertigo .
That’s not so subtle, actually, that was placed there very intentionally.
What other filmmakers influenced the film’s aesthetic?
The influences were manifold really, not only cinematic, like Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk, Scorsese, John Huston’s The Dead ; but also the whole idea of melodrama and the drama of the family table. We also looked at a lot of Russian novels, and I sometimes wonder if that wasn’t the original spark of the idea of Emma being Russian because we were reading a lot of Tolstoy. That whole idea of a kind of meticulousness – we never said it at the time, but I can say it with hindsight – we wanted to make a film in which somebody winding up the ribbon of an unwrapped present was as telling as some great speech. That’s the kind of cinema that we want to make, the cinema that’s about details, the way in which one can normally find that kind of license to be detailed in a novel, even in a modern novel. That’s something that doesn’t seem to have been lost in modern novels, but in modern cinema that kind of detail is really out of fashion, and normally people have to stand around talking about their lot and being very articulate about it.
It’s a very visual film, how does that kind of meticulousness affect you as an actor?
I’d already worked with the cinematographer [Yorick Le Saux] on a film called Julia, which was shot very differently, but in a very compatible way, in that it freed up performances to be behaviour, because there was nothing brittle around the frame…. That moment, with the ribbon, for example, was something that I just did, and he got it, and I remember at one point on the second or third take, and going to Luca, and suggesting that he ask Yorick to focus on my hand, but he had already caught it. Not every cinematographer would have looked for it and got it, and not many directors would have put it into the final cut, so that kind of grazing, that kind of detail, that kind of almost documentary spirit, was really important for us, because it broke up the theatrical nature of the story.
In this film, the visuals are incredibly important, but the language just as much, especially since you had to learn Italian for the role. Was that difficult?
Yes, but as Hitchcock said, the language, the dialogue, is just atmosphere. I think what we’re talking about is a cinema that is predicated on the probability that people are inarticulate. I think there’s a whole fashion for cinema to be very articulate and for people to be talking all the time and for people to be able to hear what they’re saying, to respond and express themselves. I think what we’re looking for is a cinematic landscape where people may operate together, in some kind of configuration as a family, or as a group, or as a class or whatever, but actually, they don’t necessarily say that much to each other, or that if they do say something, the things they say are not as important as the way they say it, or the fact that they’re saying it, or what they’re doing with their hands while they’re saying it. Language is not the only tool in the toolbox, it’s not the most important thing that people can do. I think that’s a really important point. In terms of my work in the film, Emma is not Italian, so she’s speaking a second language all her life. She speaks very little Russian, except to her oldest son. So that feeling of her being at one remove, almost alien, is very important.
Is that something you felt yourself on set?
Yes, in a sense, it’s something I know very well, that feeling. I understand a bit of Italian, so I’m not completely out of it. I was just talking earlier about how much there’s a kind of relaxation that comes over me when I go to Asia. I feel so foreign, it’s something I really enjoy, and it’s such a relief. Not being able to understand what people say is a great holiday for me.
Obviously, you’re the film’s producer, and you seem to be more interested in the film as a whole, the aesthetics, rather than simply your job as an actor…
Yes, but as I’ve said countless times today, if you don’t think of me as an actor you’ll find it easier to understand what I’m about.
Would you think of yourself more as an artist?
I’m a film fan… or an artist’s model. I’m sometimes in front of the camera and best known for being in front of the camera, let’s face it, but, generally speaking, I’m just trying to get films made.
And does the Oscar® help with that?
I don’t know for sure, but I’m not going to second guess it. Maybe, and I’m very grateful, but I’ll never know for sure if it helped get this film made. It might help us get it released, and they put it on the poster, so…
‘Academy® Award Winner Tilda Swinton’
It’s a brand, but I’m going to put it to good use and I’m not going to waste it, don’t worry.
Emma’s relationship with her daughter is an interesting one, as her own love story acts as the catalyst for her mother’s eventual escape…
Well, she leads her mother, I think Emma follows Elisabetta, and there’s something very touching about that, the way the mother follows the daughter’s liberation… Alba [Rohrwacher] is a wonderful Italian actress, she’s someone we knew anyway and we actually wrote that part for her because she and I work very well as mother and daughter… The film is not about a desperate housewife, it’s not about a woman who is unsatisfied at the start of the film, she’s perfectly satisfied. In fact, she’s very happy. It’s just that the depth charge hasn’t gone off yet.
It’s a theme you tend to revisit as an actress, particularly in Orlando – someone trying to escape other people’s perceptions.
This thing about transformation, when somebody has the opportunity to actually transform, and time and time again, particularly in these films that I generate myself, that’s a very, very repetitive theme tune – say, in Julia, or Orlando, or The Deep End, or in the film I’m just about to make with Lynne Ramsey… just about someone who takes what they have, either what they have projected onto them by society, or something that they’ve built themselves, and then they actively have to take it apart and rebuild it.
You clearly enjoy working with Luca, and even before the Oscar®, you’ve worked with some amazing directors – David Fincher, Spike Jonze, the Coens…Who else would you like to work with?
Oh, there are millions, so many I couldn’t even possibly start. It’s a really joyful part of my life, having conversations with these filmmakers, and getting work from them, and the greatest thing about everyone I’ve ever worked with is that they’re all film fans. That’s the common denominator with all these people I’ve ever worked with, whether it’s Béla Tarr, or Fincher, or Andrew Adamson, or Luca, they’re all crazed up film fans, and so am I. And there’s always more.
You’re next film is going to be an adaptation of We Need to Talk About Kevin (earlier at a public Q&A, the book came up and there was a collective gasp at the mention of the title.)
That’s a film we’ve been working on for a few years; it’s based on this book by Lionel Schriver. I’m so terrified by it… It is pretty strong stuff, and I think Lynne is the perfect person to make the film. I’m producing it as well, we’re going to shoot it in the spring. Who knows, maybe we’ll be here next year with it…
I Am Love is out at selected cinemas on April 9th.