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The Awakening: Tilda Swinton in I Am Love

As the Russian-born matriarch of an Italian family, glamorous—and British—Oscar winner Tilda Swinton is an ice princess whose passions are awakened by a sensual young chef in Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love.


Over her unique and varied 25-year career, the glamorously enigmatic Oscar winner Tilda Swinton has developed a loyal and rabid fanbase. In the Italian moralist melodrama I Am Love (Io sono l'amore), directed by Luca Guadagnino, it’s easy to see why. With her signature red hair muted to a chic strawberry blonde, Swinton has never looked more beautiful; her lovely features are set off by very expensive—and very chic—fashions, and her internal monologues express volumes without words.


Emma Recchi (Swinton) is the Soviet-born matriarch of an aristrocratic Italian family in Milan. Her husband Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), a businessman, seemingly “acquired” her as one would a work of art, and ensconced her in formidably beautiful mansion that serves as both a home and a figurative cage, albeit a very nice one. (The house is a marvel, and is an actual museum in Milan.) With her three grown children building their own lives, Emma finds herself without a real purpose: she throws amazing parties, and has lunch with her mother-in-law (Marisa Berenson), but she is emotionally alone in her cold, empty nest.



Enter Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a talented local chef opening a restaurant with Emma’s son Edoardo. Suddenly, Antonio’s sumptuous food awakens something in our ice princess. (Food is integral to the story—a crucial plot point revolves around a Russian soup from Emma’s childhood—and it’s filmed beautifully. If you see the film, plan to eat dinner afterwards.) With Antonio, she begins a passionate affair that threatens to annihilate her carefully constructed world.


Swinton and Guadagnino have talked about this project for more than a decade, as Swinton revealed in a recent roundtable interview. We found her to be open, articulate, and warm—everything Emma is not—as she discussed how tough it can be to speak “American,” the importance of language, and the dangerous game they played with minimalist composer John Adams.



The Recchi Family


Q: Please tell us about your involvement in making this film. We understand it’s been quite a passion project for you.
Tilda Swinton: I love that term “passion project.” It implies that a project might not be a passion project! Luca and I have been friends for more than 20 years, and we dreamed it up. We started getting more concrete about it 7 years ago, but we’ve basically been talking about a film… that would be a sort of modernist adventure in a kind of classical mode for about 11 years.
Seven years ago, we made our second film together—I hesitate to call it a documentary, it’s an essay really—a close-up interview with me. The main theme/tune of the conversation Luca and I had during that film ended up being about love. And when we were looking at that film in post, the heart of the narrative of this film we’d been talking about for so long [emerged]. So… we just sort of chipped away at it for a while.
Q: Was your character always Russian?


TS: No, she wasn’t. [Laughs] You know, these nights spent around bottles of wine—there was a moment when she was going to be from New Orleans, and the soup was going to be jambalaya. But she became Russian fairly fast. It’s so funny talking about this whole process, because it’s kind of like picking things up and shaking them: “Is it in there? No, its not.” “Is she from Scotland? No, she isn’t.” “Is she from France? No, she isn’t.” “Is she from maybe Soviet Russia, if we are going to set it then? Which means it’s a place she can never go back to, however much she evolves?”


It also probably has something to do with Tolstoy [smiles], that she’s Russian. Organically, it felt right for her to have a very, very well developed interior life, but not to be particularly communicative. Which, without wishing to sound reductive, describes many of the Russian women that I have known who left during that time and forged lives in another milieu. I’ve spent time with a couple of women who had left during roughly that time and married rich Milanese, and they’d talked about a kind of silence that they were “friends with” for many years.

Luca Guadagnino, Marisa Berenson, Tilda Swinton


Q: The family in the film is quite diverse—the children come from the same womb, though they are all so incredibly different.
TS: Well, we make it our business to be different. And I speak as the mother of twins. I think people look over their shoulder and go, “You’re going to be good at that? Then I’ll just be good at the other thing then.”
Q: Can you talk about the language in the film? As a Russian character who is the matriarch of an Italian family, you speak Italian, Russian, and a little bit of English—how challenging was that for you?
TS: The whole language issue is of course a very important part of the—I’m always so loathe to use words like “character,” because it always feels so fake in my mouth; I don’t think in terms of character. But the whole issue of whether a person is communicative or not verbally is a really important part of looking at how they behave in the world, how they look at themselves in the world.
Emma is an alien, and she’s speaking and living in a language not her own. She only speaks her own language with her eldest son. The idea was that she had this child pretty fast [after marrying], and probably didn’t speak Italian for the first year, so she spoke Russian to him. But by the time the second and third children came along, she’d really stopped speaking Russian altogether. She says to Antonio that she ceased to be Russian when she came to Italy. And that’s a pretty intense thing to say—to say that you literally shut up shop on the first 20 years of your identity? It’s a tough call. I speak in the luxurious position of someone who’s never had to do that, but people have done that fairly regularly through the centuries, and I find that amazing.


For me personally, the whole idea of working outside of your own tongue—I mean, when I’m impersonating American people, I am outside of my own tongue, because it’s not about accents, it’s about another language. If I’m being called upon to improvise in American, I might as well be improvising in Russian, frankly. Because I can’t use the constructions I use in my own language; I have to translate things constantly. And sometimes I’ll get it wrong; you can really hear it.
So that whole feeling of being outside your own tongue was very useful for Emma, because she can’t improvise. So it keeps her mute, which is something we wanted to do.
Q: Do you speak a number of languages? We read that somewhere.
TS: Europeans do speak [multiple] languages. I couldn’t be interviewed in Italian, or Russian, or German, or French, at the speed Luca [Guadagnino, the director] can in English; everything would slow down. But I could try, because that’s what we do.
Q: There’s a lot of really interesting imagery surrounding the love scenes—for example, closeups of plants, and of insects—what did you think of that the first time you saw the film cut together?
TS: I was a producer on the film, so [I was involved in the editing]… That is part of the text of the film: the idea of, the reality of placing sex in nature. Of seeing it, and shooting it, and framing it, in this kind of amoral—literally, amoral, not immoral—environment. We wanted it to feel like a David Attenborough film; we wanted it to feel like zoology, because that’s what it feels like to us. And it was shot absolutely with that attendance—we were aware all the time that we needed that kind of detail, this zoological gaze.


Q: The food is gorgeous, too.
TS: That is not just smoke and mirrors, either! We worked alongside Carlo Cracco, who is this great chef in Milan. He not only designed for us, but also provided all the food in the film.
Q: Food doesn’t always read well on screen…
TS: Well, this was as delicious as it looked. All those takes were not a problem for me.
Q: So the rapture was natural! That scene [where Emma first tastes Antonio’s prawns] was amazing.
TS: This is something Luca and I talk about a lot. The film was entirely conceived to rest within and to come out of a kind of atmosphere of ease. That’s a cinema we’re really interested in. So wherever possible, things were real: our priest was a real priest—when he’s reading the funeral rites, that’s real. It makes it very easy for everybody. The doctor who [breaks bad news] is a friend of ours, but he’s also a real doctor, who has to do that on a regular basis, unfortunately. And he just came into the room and did what he normally does.
A lot of the people who work in the house [were non-actors]—for example, our amazing butler is a real butler. And the chef’s assistant is Cracco’s real assistant. That feeling of real work in real hands was very important to us.


Q: Can you tell us a little about the choice of music? It really heightens the emotional moments.
TS: Well, we played this very dangerous game with the music, which was we made ourselves addicted to John AdamsEarbox way before there was any possibility of having it in the film. We kind of wrote it into the DNA of the last draft of the script—I mean, there are scenes in the film written to—and certainly shot to—patches of John Adams’ music. The scene in Sanremo, where I am following Antonio in the streets, was actually shot to this piece of music. We would listen to it in between takes to get a rhythm for the camera, and a rhythm for my walking, and a rhythm for the grips… And that is very dangerous when you are dealing with a composer who has—famously—never allowed his music to be used in a film before!


But this miracle happened! I wrote to this friend, and asked if he knew John Adams, and then I wrote to John Adams—I kind of declared the liberties we were taking. Because we have taken liberties—we’ve cut and pasted his “greatest hits.” We’re not talking about an original score here, we’re talking about a real mishmash.


And I still can’t believe it—he saw what we’d done, and he liked it, and he let us have the music. The reason this music felt to us like the film we wanted to make, the film we’d been talking about for so long, is that it has—again—this capacity to be at once classical and modernist and vernacular: there’s something about John Adams that is so flexible, and at the same time so shamelessly operatic and emotional.


Because we were working with this milieu, with this particular “denial-fest” in this family, we knew we had to play our emotional jokers very carefully. If you’re working within this trope of melodrama, you have to be very careful about when you play your emotion in a scene; you have to hold your jokers up your sleeve until fairly late in the film. But if you haven’t got an expressive score, it might just feel super-dry and it might feel uninvolving, and one might just lose glue with these dry, inexpressive people.


And so placing this rather sort of delicate set of eggs in this very lush nest of music from the very beginning was a dream for us; it was exactly what we needed. If it hadn’t been for John Adams, I think we would have been sitting down with a boxed set of Mahler—I can’t think of what else we would have done, really.


I Am Love
is now playing in New York and LA. It opens across the country in coming weeks.


Watch the trailer:



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