Tilda Swinton is as commanding in person as she is on screen. Her poise instantly attracts all attention and her passion for her work is overwhelmingly present in her answer to even the simplest question. However, there’s nothing simple about I Am Love. Not only has the project been in the works for over a decade, but the final product is oozing with a lavish and classical complexity we rarely see nowadays.
The film stars Swinton as Emma, a Russian native who moves to Milan to be with her textile tycoon husband. She has three grown children and resides in a lush mansion run by a devoted wait staff, with a wardrobe filled with the finest fashion. Most would consider this a privilege, but in Emma’s case, it becomes more of a prison. With her children living their own lives and husband always working, she’s often left to herself. She has all of the riches in the world, but no one to share them with. That all changes when her son introduces her to his new friend, Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a chef, a man with the ability to rouse a powerful sensation within Emma through his tasty delicacies, as well his presence.
I Am Love leaves the viewer with many questions and that’s exactly how the filmmakers wanted it. Everything from the message of the film to the characters’ fate is left to the moviegoer’s interpretation. But, of course, during our roundtable interview, Swinton was eager to elaborate on a range of topics including the inspiration for the piece, the thought put into the costume selection and much more.
What do you like the most and what do you like the least about your character?
That’s sort of my favorite question to not know how to answer. And the question is, why did we dream her up in the first place. I’m trying to get past the ‘like’ or the ‘not like.’
Another way of putting it is what parts of the character did you respond to on a visceral level the most and what did you find most challenging to draw out of yourself?
See, I so don’t work that way. This is revealing that I don’t work like a real actor; I don’t draw things out of myself or get viscerally involved, to be honest. We wanted to tell the story about someone who had a really developed inner life, but didn’t have much company and we were drawing on fantasies of silent cinema and classic cinema and also classic novels like Tolstoy and Flaubert where you have a woman protagonist who is very often a mother who’s given a whole part of her life to supporting and loving other people, but hasn’t necessarily been paying much attention to herself. We wanted this person to be very interior, very quiet, not very articulate or verbal and not particularly communicative and fairly self sufficient, but sort of unawoken. She’s not repressed, suppressed or oppressed in any way, but she’s just not fully alive when we first me her although she would certainly say she was content. She lives a life that she’s pretty settled into and we wanted to look at a woman sort of re-approaching the idea of being not just a mother, a woman not just defined by the fact that she’s there to support and nourish children.
How significant is Emma’s wardrobe to her character’s transformation?
I think of her as an avatar. She comes into this world as an alien and it’s a very particular world. I think anyone of us marrying an industrial tycoon of that kind in Milan, particularly in the 90s, would find ourselves daunted to assimilate ourselves. There’s a uniform you have to supply yourself with. We couldn’t turn up looking like this. [Laughs] You need to walk the walk and talk the talk and you need to dress in a certain way. Someone like Emma, who comes from outside of that milieu, particularly someone who comes from a milieu that really doesn’t equip her at all – it’s not like she moves from New York or moves from Abu Dhabi even – she comes from Soviet Russia into a world that she really has no preparation for, so she has to learn the code and so her wardrobe, to a certain extent, is everything and her jewels. I can’t remember where that saying comes from, you know, ‘He who wears the jewels,’ that whole thing about having jewels put on her like golden handcuffs I think of them by her husband; he’s the one who takes them out of the safe. And this whole idea of her never taking them off, taking her clothes off, her housekeeper dressing her, her husband putting her shoes back on, this whole feeling of her being dressable.
How do you think the color palate of her costume evoked her life in the country versus her life at home?
It was absolutely designed to do exactly that. Raf Simmons of Jil Sander and his team were so responsive to our challenge in a way, which was to make a responsive wardrobe for an uncommunicative person. She’s communicative in some ways, but the idea of her signaling with a red dresses that she might be in the process of falling in love or, for example, the dress that she wears in the hospital, that dress is several tones darker than the dress that she’s wearing at the dinner party minutes before.
The story is left to the audience’s interpretation, but is there a message you’re hoping to get across?
Not big on messages, certainly not in cinema.
Can you talk a bit about the Oedipal triangle in the film?
What you’re speaking of is the structure, the sort of old bottle that we were trying to pour some new wine into or vice versa. We were consciously, as it were, downloading these sort of tropes of melodrama, this whole idea of there being a certain sense of type that you would have. Like when we refer to it as a fable, it’s actually quite useful because you think of it as a fairy story; you think of this young queen in a palace with a not necessarily sympathetic king and a young prince. It’s just this Lancelot story in a way and the magic potion and the prawns and this whole feeling of destiny and inheritance. We were very consciously pulling on those references and the relationships between the eldest son who is, in theory, the heir but in a way is a compromised heir because he’s not exactly made very clearly the next in line; it’s all muddled with his grandfather’s ego in saying it would take two men to replace him. Who are [director] Luca [Guadagnino] and I to judge homoerotic love for Antonio, but this sense of there being a bond between the lover and the son far beyond his friendship was something we really wanted to tickle. We just wanted to tickle it and to sort of scatter it into the audience. As I say, we’re not interested in making any particular statements or making anything particularly definitive. For example, the structure of the film, having said that we were pulling on a melodramatic theme to end with the moment de la mort by the pool, that we’re all, as we watch it, expecting the big showdown, expecting the long speeches, expecting some kind of catharsis and then to cheat us of it, to make sure that even before we get started on declaring anything or being clear about anything we get him, you know, under water. It was just a set of experiments that we were playing with ourselves. We weren’t particularly interested in any answers; we just wanted to set a few hairs running.
You and Luca were working on this project for quite a while. Was this something that was always in the forefront even when you were working on other films or did you develop it sporadically?
It’s funny because I realized in talking about it these days to people in your position, the trip is that I’ve worked on so many films that have taken that long that it’s not really that exotic to me. I mean, 11 years, that’s how long it takes to make a film like this and it’s a seed in the ground for a long time and then very very slowly a shoot will begin to show. Once one’s in a position to show it in cinemas, one could look back at the 11 years and work out what each year was good for. Usually one is blessing every single one because it’s only in the 10th year that one found the house or somebody became the right age to play a part. Once one comes to the end of 11 years, you look back and you just think, “Well, you know what? I’m glad we didn’t make it earlier. It wasn’t ready. It didn’t come up.” Meanwhile, during that 11 years, there are other seeds that have been growing in the ground that a couple of them have come up already. For me it’s this film that Magnolia distributed last year called Julia and another film that we’re just in the process of finishing now called We Need to Talk About Kevin. They also are long standing projects from Europe that I’ve been growing. And meanwhile, while they’ve been growing, I was invited to some American parties by Tony Gilroy and the Cohens and David Fincher and I was very happy to go, but I’m a small holder in Europe and I came because I was invited, but really I had work to do at home.
A number of reviews for this film mentioned the parallel between Emma’s awakening and the awakening of her daughter in terms of her sexual identity. Do you think that’s an accurate comparison? And, without giving anything away, what’s the significance of the fact that she’s the only child who understands the decision Emma makes?
It’s very precise and it’s very well noticed. It’s very important to us to place in the narrative of the story that Emma is lead to liberation by her children. She’s introduced to her lover by her son, she is introduced to the concept of love in many ways by her daughter and that’s something that we do feel very strongly about, the possibility and, in my experience, the probability of being led by your children, of being led into enlightenment by your children. It was something that we feel very tender about in the story, the relationship between the mother and the daughter and the way in which the daughter at that last moment, at that darkest moment of alienation, it’s the daughter who blesses the mother and gives her the license to be free.
What do you imagine is next for Emma?
That’s an interesting question because there was a time in one draft we saw what was next for Emma and I’m not even going to tell you what happened, but I’m having to imagine that that wasn’t the case. We visualized a scene where we saw her five years from now. Honestly, and I think this is a compliment to what we did, I don’t know.
The very last shot, when they’re in the cave, is rather mystifying. Is there any way to explain that?
No, no. It’s not there to be explained, it’s not there to even invite explanation. It’s like a gift to the audience, like a little parting goodie bag for the audience to go home with.
By Perri Nemiroff