At the center of Luca Guadagnino’s rapturous I Am Love, opening June 18th, Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton burns white hot as a wife imprisoned in a world of wealth and custom. The character’s Princess is trapped in a castle turret, but the actress’s performance is a gem set in an elegant and timeless brooch. Guadagnino’s narrative is lean and unfolds effortlessly as if in accord with the natural order of Story itself. Nothing twists or gnarls the plot which ends up tending toward myth. The randy housewife may be one of the oldest stories in the book, but tethered to the febrile nerve that is Swinton it never lacks for vitality.
The craftsmanship of the film is as precise as a watchmaker’s and the materials employed in creating the world of a mighty Milanese family are among the finest on Earth. Unfolding in some fantasy world dreamt up in concert by Brunello Cucinelli, Raf Simons, Andrea Palladio and Luchino Visconti, I Am Love brims with luxury and beauty. Dossier caught up with the Sicilian maestro in March to talk about Flaubert, the sexuality of cinema and the mercurial Miss Swinton.
In I Am Love Tilda Swinton’s repressed housewife is named Emma. How much of this was inspired by Bovary and Flaubert?
To be honest, I think something like Madame Bovary is part of the genetics of many people and myself too. But if I say that I named the character Emma after that and that I really wanted to do another take on Emma Bovary and Flaubert I would lie. I think that is part of a more general genetic memory of art and literature that I have. What was a direct influence, in terms of the literal influence and literature influence, was Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, a novel I read when I was very young and I kept reading—I’m still reading it—because I found it extremely fascinating. It is the story of 20 years of a family in Germany in the 19th century. It’s about the decadence of this family that represents the mercantile class of bourgeoisie Germany. In this book there is a character called Gerta Buddenbrook, the wife of the patriarch who in a way inspired me for Emma because in that book Gerta is a very secret woman with a mystery for herself and I see Emma as a very mysterious character who you don’t get to know completely because of what you don’t get to know and because also she is Russian.
Interesting that you mention Thomas Mann as that makes me think of Visconti who directed the great Death in Venice from Mann’s masterpiece and, in so many ways, both celebrated and eviscerated the baroque and decadent behavior of the aristocracy. Is Visconti at all an inspiration for you?
I believe that Visconti in the recent decade has been neglected as a sort of academic director. I am a total cinephile and I really see movies as a source of life for me. When I decided to go back to study Visconti to understand the secret of Visconti’s cinema I reviewed all of his movies and particularly Rocco and his Brothers and Senso and I discovered—I was astonished to learn—that this master of cinema is still an experimentalist who is playing with the form and language of cinema, trying to show a sort of visualization of class struggle, love, through the form of cinema, and it’s very daring. So, yes, we regarded Visconti as a sort of indication of a way of being entertaining and classical at the same time as being experimental and subversive.
How did you approach making a film that is so explicitly sensual, but only rendered in two dimensions, a visceral experience for the viewer?
I would say, by being truthful to my personal vision of things and life. It’s about not denying the strength of your ideas and trying to speak to it. I believe very much in the sensual element of life. I think that we all are informed by sensuality. I am an old fashioned Freudian. I think that he was right. I believe if you tell the story of some characters you should go for a very deep analysis of their behavior that comes along through their bodies.
In the Freudian sense, what does the food in the movie symbolize?
I mean, I think that food is the thing. The thing can be played in different ways—it can be tamed or untamed. Food is a way of controlling others: You can see this in all these dinner parties where you have this pitch-perfect expression of a class through its rites and mores and manners and rule, and you see these people eating all the time and not really facing the food, the thing that food represents, the organism alive, but to create a web of power. And then this young man comes along and puts food at the center stage, and he puts food—to quote Burroughs—as a naked lunch. He puts the food in a position that completely destroys the idea of controlling the other but becomes a way of communicating to the other, becomes a dialogue with the other. As the shrimps have a dialogue with Emma when she eats them. And of course it is also a nutritional element and sensual element, an erotic element—it goes inside of you. It titillated your palate. It is something that can be extremely subversive. I myself am a cook and I feel as if sometime there are people who can be disturbed by the relevance you give to food.
I had a feeling while watching that shrimp scene that there was definitely some Freudian stuff going on. It was no coincidence she was having that experience with such a phallic food.
You’re a cook, do you also work within the other elements so lovingly rendered in the film—architecture, sculpture, design, fashion?
I can answer by quoting Bernardo Bertolucci quoting the Dalai Lama, “Everything is form and the form is empty.” I believe in form and I think the most beautiful films I’ve seen recently is the last film of the great Sidney Pollack, the film of Frank O. Gehry. I believe that the shape of things is extremely fascinating.
It seems as though the way you use the camera is almost architectural. Is that something specific to this movie or is that your style, how you naturally move?
I don’t know that I would say I have a style; I hope I don’t. I think it’s more about really trying to figure out the language of cinema for the story and the milieu and the behavior of character and the story that you are telling. I’ve said that I am old fashioned because I am a Fredian, I would also add that I am old fashioned because I believe in the language of cinema instead of tele-visual shooting of scripts and people talking, talking, talking in close-up. That is something that doesn’t fascinate me. I am more interested in figuring out where to put the camera—what’s the right angle for the camera. All the directors I love, from Eric Rhomer to Alfred Hitchcock, even to the Farrelly brothers, they know where to put the camera.
Is the opulent world of the family in this movie at all what you experienced in your life?
No. I was raised in Ethiopia. My mother is Algerian. My father is Sicilian. It’s a very simple family. My father is a teacher, my mother works in telecom.
When did you first fall in love with film?
I remember sitting in my mother’s lap when I was 3 years old watching Lawrence of Arabia. It’s true. I remember all the sand.
When did you know this was what you were going to do?
I think I’ve always wanted to be a director. It is something very urgent—it is something you have to do. In fact it is very lucky to be doing a job and to get to meet a lot of great people and to get paid for it. It doesn’t feel like a job. It won’t ever feel like a job.
Speaking of great people, tell me about your working relationship with Miss Swinton with whom you have worked several times. How did it come about?
I believe that we are kind of partners in this crime that is movie-making and life. We became friends when I approached her when I was 22 asking her to do a short that we never ended up making but we started to understand we were attracted to each other like a kindred spirit. I think she is really one of the most incredible filmmakers in the history of the world. She is really fantastic. It’s not the intelligence of Tilda, it’s not the amazing cultural heritage of Tilda, but it’s her warm, passionate curiosity for all the aspects of life. She is eyes wide open and that is fantastic.