What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

A lover and a fighter: Tilda Swinton

"I have known women who have lived that life," says Tilda Swinton of Emma, the role she plays in her new film, I Am Love. "She wears the right uniform. She sits in the right position at the head of the table. She runs the show, she plays the part in the theatrical job she has of being a trophy wife. But then with the children having come of age, she begins to look around and rediscover herself."

With that rediscovery comes tragedy on a grand scale. This epic drama of the emotional collapse of a modern Milanese upper-class woman was written and directed by Luca Guadagnino with Swinton specifically in mind for the central role of an adulterous trophy wife. Because Swinton comes from one of the oldest families in Scotland (its ancestral home dates back to the 9th century) and attended school with Diana Spencer (the late Princess Di), she herself might well have made the sort of marriage her character in the film takes on. That is, if she weren't a bohemian to her very bones.

Never married, the 50-year-old Swinton has 12-year-old twins with Scottish writer John Byrne, and since 2004 has also been in a relationship with New Zealand painter Sandro Kopp. That's hardly what "morality"-minded conservatives would call "the right uniform" for a mother of two. But there's nothing uniform about Swinton's life or art.

"I've known Luca for 20 years, but a project like this takes a long time to grow — just like the one I'm doing now," she notes, calling from the Massachusetts set of We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay's film about the mother of a middle-class teenaged psychopath. As with I Am Love, Swinton is also co-producing Kevin. This isn't unusual — she's done the same for the likes of Thumbsucker and Stephanie Daley. Ever since her career-launching collaborations with gay British avant-guardian Derek Jarman (Caravaggio, The Last of England, Edward II) Swinton has been an actress-plus.

Schooled by Jarman in the independent filmmaking process, she made the most of her alluringly androgynous demeanor in Sally Potter's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's time-spanning gender-bending fantasy, Orlando (to be rereleased this summer); graced films large (Constantine), small (Young Adam) and medium (Adaptation); and turned a major corner in 2007, when she won Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her sinister corporate lawyer in Michael Clayton. Typical of Swinton, instead of following this with a conventional studio film, she chose to play a psychotic grifter in Erick Zonca's low-budget Julia; John Malkovich's testy wife in the Coen brothers' spy romp Burn After Reading; and one of the loves of a backward-aging Brad Pitt in David Fincher's big-budget The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — before moving to the lush climes of Italy to make a film that Guadagnino describes as "the kind of grand cinema that doesn't really exist anymore."

"What's interesting about Luca," Swinton says, "is on the one hand he's very much a formalist. On the other he has a kind of casualness with the behavior of the people within the frame. I think that's very modern."

Postmodern would be the word for the cinematic cross-references and evocations made in I Am Love, to Italian greats Visconti, Antonioni, Pasolini, but also Jonathan Demme (the aria "La Mamma Morte," borrowed from Philadelphia, gives this film its title). To the cinematically savvy there's a whole film festival inside of this one film. If that film festival were to have a theme, it would be forbidden love, in all its dramatic and romantic glory.

"The young chef my character falls in love with is quite like Terence Stamp in Teorema, where he played a kind of God who seduced an entire bourgeois family," Swinton observes. "This Antonio [Edoardo Gabbriellini] could very well have had an affair with another member of that family — but he chooses me."

This choice is most imposing. It's not simply a love affair between an older woman and a younger man but an older woman of means and social standing, and a younger man who has neither. He's a perfectly acceptable figure in the kitchen but not in the bedroom. Consequently, the images of Swinton descending from the bedroom to visit the man she loves in the kitchen are, in sociopolitical terms, as shocking as the love they make in in the forest near his home.

"Had it been someone else, an ordinary gigolo, or, 'I'm in love with Fabrizio who you were at school with,' her husband he might very well say, 'Good old Fabrizio,' and it would be alright. Class is the issue. Plus, it's revealed very casually that the family made its fortune during the fascist era on the backs of the Jews. So the level of denial is incredible.

"The interesting thing about my character," the actress continues "is that she's not from this world. She's Russian. Her husband had gone there looking for golden artifacts and brought her home in 'golden handcuffs' — all the jewelry she wears all the time. Then, outside of her story, into this world comes Waris Ahluwalia [The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited] who plays this incredibly suave New York sikh, and has this line about war being true democracy because it creates all these job opportunities. He's getting the family to sell its assets, become a 'brand' more wealthy than ever. So while there are many echoes of Visconti in the film, especially Senso, this is is not like his feudal aristocracy."

And the affair takes off in a direction quite different from Visconti, as the coming out of daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) plays an important role in the mother's self-discovery­. "What saves her, in a way, is her daughter. It's the gay daughter who leads her mother to her liberation."

It might be said that Swinton was born liberated. Set apart from her own very traditional family, she relishes the term class traitor as a way to describe herself. Yet, she's a traitor with much practice playing matriarchs.

"You could have an American Mother box set with me by now. There's The Deep End, Thumbsucker this now this new one, We Need to Talk About Kevin. But you could have I Am Love in there as well. But maybe you should also include Young Adam, and The War Zone. You could call it Tilda Swinton: The Mother Lode!"

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