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The Awakening: Tilda Swinton in I Am Love

06/25/2010 12:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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.

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: 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.

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

Read the entire interview at TribecaFilm.com.