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Love, Tilda Style

Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton talks to PopMatters about a quiet, sophisticated melodrama set in a golden cage, Carlo Cracco-inspired gastro-porn, and the glint of cinematic gold captured in a still moment.

I Am Love

Director: Luca Guadagnino
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Gabriele Ferzetti
Rated: R
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Year: 2009
US date: 2010-06-18 (Limited release)
UK date: 2010-04-09 (General release)

Director Luca Guadagnino's sumptuous European family melodrama I Am Love is a meticulous construction that depicts the turbulent, often passionate struggles of the fictional Recchis. An old-school Italian dynasty that boasts power, centuries-old wealth and reputation, Guadagnino elicits a specific feeling of upper crust angst from each of the participating actors, while the film itself, from a technical standpoint, practically bursts with love, an alternately violent, dramatic, cruel, punishing and freeing emotion. I Am Love distinctly evokes a particular brand of aristocratic opulence that references such rich cinematic forebearers as Luchino Visconti, Louis Malle, and Luis Bunuel, all of whom regularly took long, hard looks at the monied elite (the presence of actress Marisa Berenson who worked with Visconti on Death in Venice even further fortifies this very formal feeling).

While paying subliminal homage to the history of cinema, I Am Love manages to remain a truly unique, complex visual object in it's own right. It's complete with immaculately detailed, handmade artisinal touches throughout (such as paitings, photography and decadent gourmet cuisine from one of the world's greatest chefs), marking the Recchi's territory as a place of distinct pleasures and privileges. In concert with cool, slick and luxurious surfaces that bring to mind the vaccuum-sealed worlds of 1950s Douglas Sirk, Guadagnino's decadent symphony of textures is a sharp reminder that material wealth can be, as in the story told in Nicolas Pouisson's rendering of Midas and Bacchus, a trap that you wished you'd never asked for.

Ensconced in a kind of gilded prison, Emma is a Russian emigre who long ago married into an influential family, the Recchis ("Emma" being an allusion to the great tragic literary figure Madame Bovary). As she nears the point in her life where her commitments to the family are beginning to be fully obliged, and while power is freely exchanging hands within the family's dynamic structures, the quiet, graceful Emma begins to realize that she has been "caged", according to Tilda Swinton, the actress who plays her. It is a thrill to watch the veteran performer essay this variant on the matriarch type who must figure out a way to once again become herself in the face of great loss rather than continue to exist as yet another possession of the family, even as she grows more and more distanced from what they stand for and who they really are.

As played by one of the most versatile, exciting working actresses today, Emma is enigmatic, carnal, well-styled and completely unique; all Swintonian signatures. The Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for Michael Clayton called me from California to discuss planting hearty cinematic seeds, flashmob dancing with children in the streets of Edinborough and constantly thinking about Gena Rowlands.

Tilda Swinton: Hi Matt, it's Tilda...

PopMatters: Tilda Swinton! Thanks for speaking with me today! How is Los Angeles treating you?

TS: Thank you for speaking to me, it goes both ways. Well, the hotel bedroom window is treating me well and that's about it. I haven't seen much else to be honest with you.

PM: Well, I hear you're headed to the Provincetown International Film Festival where there are drag queens on roller skates, so that will be more scenic.

TS: (laughing) I'm looking forward to it! I'm looking forward to every moment of it!

PM: I Am Love evokes positively Viscontian memories of decadence, style and privilege. Class and money are also central themes that could perhaps also link your characters in films like The Deep End, Young Adam, and Michael Clayton.What about the cinematic depiction of "class" most intrigues you?

TS: Well, the thing about a milieu, like the milieu in I Am Love, is those people, they've got a lot to be very quiet about, and I think that's pretty cinematic. People behaving without necessarily talking their way through the day, I think is pretty intriguing, cinematically. So I think that's a start...Seeing people sort of negotiate these beautiful worlds, projecting onto them what they might be feeling is kind of cinematic gold as well. You know, they don't kind of sit around and gossip about how difficult life is or what's going on with the world at all, it's all about a kind of decorum and a kind of quietness which I find really intruiging.

PM: One element of I Am Love that I loved was the kind of impressionist-feeling technique director Luca Guadagnino employed to seduce and tantalize each of the spectator's senses very distinctly, sensually. I found the food very sexy!

TS: Mmmm... Gastro-porn we call it, Matt!

PM: When food is a main character and kind of love interest in the film, do the dishes lose their magic when you have to see it take after take and presumably eat it constantly?

TS: When it's made by Carlo Cracco, who is the extraordinary chef who designed all the food and made all the food in the film. He's this amazing double Michelin star winning chef from Milan. Its really no effort, the 17th take is really no problem.

PM: Fashion and style are intrinsic components of I Am Love, and I know for many actors costume is an essential way of getting into the character. What have been your most memorable film costumes and what kind of access have they allowed you to your characters that you might have not had without them?

TS: Well, as far as I'm concerned, Matt, it's all about dressing up and playing. The dressing up is, in many ways, the only piece of work that I really do. I always like to have that work done before you start shooting, so once you start shooting, you can just play. Getting the look -- and of course that also means the body and the voice -- the whole kind of disguise, if you like, right. It's detective work you do before you start shooting. I mean, clothes and style in general, whatever it is, even if you're playing someone who works on a barge, what people put on their bodies and what they choose to wear, how they choose to present themselves, how they brush their hair, whether they put a clip in it, whether they decide to wear lipstick, etc. All of us make these decisions every day, about how we're going negotiate with the world. So, working out how this particular person negotiates with the world is always, for me, almost the only work to be done. You work out the disguise and then you just play.

PM: I recently revisited The Deep End and it is frustrating to me as a fan of films that center around unique female experiences that there are not more films like The Deep End or Julia or I Am Love being made. What challenges have you faced getting interesting movies with women at the center made and how have you overcome any challenges that might have popped up along the way?

TS: Well, we've overcome the challenges by finally getting them made. Just getting them made is the thing. They generally take a while to get off the ground. I mean, I Am Love took eleven years to get made. Orlando, which is just about to be re-released in July, took five years to get made. All of those films have taken a while. One is always encountering film financiers telling you the lie, which is 'people don't want to see films about women.' And then, you finally get them made and they get out there and there are people like you who are kind enough to say 'this is exactly what I want to see.' So, you get over the challenge by finally making the film and you just keep going. I don't know...(laughing) well I know and you know that these are films that people want to see. They're not the only films people want to see, but people definitely do want to see them. You just have to keep plugging away I suppose.

PM: Is it at all about finding a balance between working in studio films andthe independent world? Does that enter into the equation ever?

TS: Well, to be honest with you, if I make any plans at all, it's planting seeds in the ground that take, you know, nine or seven or eleven years to come to fruition, like these films, like Julia and I Am Love and the film that I am just finishing with Lynne Ramsey, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Like with the work with Derek Jarman or Sally Potter. Those are the only plans I ever make. All the studio films that I have ever made have just been sort of party invitations that come to me through the post. They're not things that I'd ever planned. I was invited to go make a film with Andrew Adamson, I was invited to go make a film with Tony Gilroy, and with Spike Jonze, David Fincher and with the Coen Brothers, but they weren't my plans. They were just party invitations that I accepted. I'm really, really, really happy I was invited, but I don't live in those films, you know? I certainly didn't plan them. Obviously, one can't say that they don't help, they must help. Maybe. I'm not saying that they did for sure, but I'm certainly very grateful for any people who have not seen our European work, who might only have seen those American films, that might go see I Am Love. They might have helped get these European films made, and if they do, then I am really grateful.

PM: Funny you should mention party invitations, because one of my favorite moments from the Oscars in recent years was when you presented the Oscar to Penelope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona alongside Anjelica Huston, Goldie Hawn, Whoopi Goldberg and Eva Marie Saint. I thought that was such a powerful image of strong female talent, and an exciting celebration of film history. What was it like being a part of that group?

TS: It was hilarious. (laughing) It was like, you wake up thinking 'I had a really strange dream last night,' because you're on a big stage with Goldie Hawn and Whoopi Goldberg! (laughing) So, it's a very strange experience. It's strange for you to remind me of it because it's like a weird dream. It was a really nice thing to be a part of.

PM: I've read a few interviews where you've been really enthusiastic about your own love of film, and I read that Alida Valli in Senso was an inspiration for you on I Am Love. What are the other film performances that have inspired you recently? Is there a particular film moment or image that really sticks with you?

TS: One's always downloading one's heroes, I suppose, all the time. We're not referencing any particular, current pieces of work. I remember being asked whether I thought about Gena Rowlands for Julia and thinking 'well, I think about Gena Rowlands all the time!' Not just for Julia. Of course, we thought about [John] Cassavetes a lot for Julia. For this film, we thought about Catherine Denueve in Belle de Jour. I thought about -- and again, I always think about -- Delphine Seyrig in Last Year at Marienbad. But again, it's not just sampling these performances, but being inspired by them all the time. I could say that I'm just as inspired by Delphine Seyrig when I'm making Julia as when I doing I Am Love. Who else? Let me think...Carole Lombard in To Be or Not to Be. Those are the people that kind of spring to my mind. So does Ingrid Bergman.

PM: Somebody I draw a lot of inspiration from is Derek Jarman, who no doubt paved the way for and inspired the work of so many current queer auteurs the world over. What are some of the really important things that your close friendship and business partnership with him taught you about making movies?

TS: I suppose essentially, when I met Derek Jarman and when I entered the world that he occupied -- which to me was my introduction into the world of art, really -- it wasn't a world he created. He was the first to admit that he inherited that world. [He was] my link to the sixties, and therefore the thirties, and therefore to the twenties, you know, he was like the kind of heir to a way of being, as an artist. Which means living in a community of artists. When I first met that world, and him, I think it really the most powerful thing about that world and encountering it was just to know that one's dream of working collaboratively, and one's dream of being in kind of supportive network of artists was also possible, was completely practical and absolutely reliable and its something that sustains me now on and on and on. Of course, Derek is no longer here, very sadly, but that world is still here and it lives on in my life and it lives on in the guise of other artists and that possibility is always there to work collaboratively and to rely on the community of other artists and the sensibility of other like-minded people. And I think just that, knowing that, one never needs to feel isolated, one never needs to feel so alienated that one needs to shut up or one needs to stop feeling functional. That's, I think, a real blessing. If that can be translated to young artists who are just starting out, to encourage them to know that something's out there and you just need to find it. That's all you have to do, just reach out and you'll find like-minded people and you can make work with them or even not make work with them but rely upon them as a supportive family in a constellation. That's a really wonderful thing to know.

PM: That sounds lovely. One last quick question: What is going on with your infamous Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams film festival?

TS: We made one film festival, intending it to be the only film festival we ever made. (laughing) It became such a phenomenon that we were asked, and the first one was made in this diffused bingo hall in Nairn [Scotland] and on the back of that we were asked to make a film festival for the Scottish government in Beijing. We made a festival of Scottish cinema with Mandarin subtitles. So we did that last year. We lost our ballroom, so we made a roving sort of festival last summer. Everyone's beginning to expect one this year, so we've decided not to do one, because everyone's expecting us to do one. We will only do one again when people are not expecting it. (laughing) But what we are about is in a couple of weeks time, at the Edinburgh Film Festival, we're going to launch a leg of a foundation that Mark Cousins and I are inaugurating, The 8 ½ Foundation, which is linked to our film festival. We wanted to inaugurate a new birthday for children, the 8 ½ birthday, and we're setting up a website, which means Scottish children are going to be able to go online and look at a menu of films that we've curated -- rare, maybe old, maybe subtitled -- whatever films that we think are magical for them, that they may not ever be able to see. They can choose one and we'll send it to them and inaugurate this 8 ½ birthday. So we're going to have an event at the Edinburgh Film Festival in a couple of weeks time and we're going to do a flashmob dance. All of our pilgrams from our pilgramage are going to come and do a flashmob dance in the streets. You should come one time, Matt!

PM: That sounds really fun. I will!

Really, how could one say no to an invitation to spend a future evening flashmob dancing in the streets of Edinburgh with Tilda Swinton and her crew for the cause of children getting a better cinematic education? My guess is she has some pretty bad-ass moves to teach us all.

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I Am Love opens in limited release on June 18 for those seeking an antivenin to the paralyzing bites of such summertime vipers as superhero franchises and banal studio comedies that aren't funny but rather quite deadly.

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