She's a character as cultured, complicated and indelible as the actress who embodies her.
In the visually sumptuous new drama "I Am Love," Tilda Swinton plays Emma, a stylish Russian émigré adopted into the Italian bourgeoisie. The matriarch of the Recchi family, a powerful Milan-based textile dynasty, she escapes her gilded cage and growing loneliness via an affair with a younger man, a chef and business associate of her son, who awakens her culinary and carnal passions.
Set during the early 2000s, "I Am Love," which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, finds its emotional currency questioning the price paid when escaping the yoke of the expected. It's yet another memorable turn for the 49-year-old Scottish actress, who has also decided to take the road less traveled with her career, which continues to see her leaping between big-budget studio movies ( "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") and more challenging art-house fare ( "The Limits of Control").
Though perhaps best known stateside for her stern-faced turns in "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and as the ambitious attorney in " Michael Clayton," for which she won an Oscar, Swinton is anything but fearsome in person. Rather, her easy enthusiasm is infectious, as she talks about her transformation into the role of a disaffected trophy wife who struggles with empty-nest feelings of isolation as her adult-aged son and daughter move on with their lives. It's a nuanced performance made more challenging by the language itself — Swinton delivers her lines in flawless Italian, but with a slight Russian lilt.
"I think of her as an avatar …" Swinton said of Emma. "She comes into that milieu and has to learn to walk the walk and to talk the talk literally. She's downloading Catherine Deneuve in 'Belle de Jour' as much as I am."
Cinematic references play their part in "I Am Love," not just with Emma, but between Swinton and director Luca Guadagnino, who bonded over a shared desire to create an "emotional cinema that's very often related to a cinema of the past." The two first met in 1994 when a 22-year-old Guadagnino pestered Swinton outside a tribute screening in Rome with a script for a short based on William S. Burroughs' "Penny Peep Show Arcade."
The short never came to pass, but two collaborations would follow: 1999's "The Protagonists," a serious-minded mockumentary about a film crew investigating a series of senseless murders that Guadagnino described as "a weird, wild guerrilla thing," and 2002's "The Love Factory," in which Swinton is filmed in a tight close-up talking to her director about matters of the heart. The latter planted the seeds for "I Am Love."
Soon after, Swinton and Guadagnino set about creating a film based around a "very quiet person [in] an environment breakable by the revolution of love," said Swinton, inspired by the tragic heroines of Flaubert and Tolstoy, but also of the great melodramas of the '50s and '60s and the visual influences of an immaculate Audrey Hepburn and Hitchcock blonds on the high society set.
During the seven-year development process that followed, Swinton would enlist Raf Simons of Jil Sander to outfit Emma in simple yet elegant sheath dresses, just one of the many tasks outside of her acting duties that she would encounter as a producer on the project, a role she has held unofficially on much of her previous work.
"For me, it's not a question of finding things, it's a question of growing them," said Swinton, who "came to a few American parties with the Coen brothers, George Clooney and David Fincher" in recent years, but obviously prefers to nurture less established talents like Guadagnino, "Julia" director Erick Zonca, and Lynne Ramsay, the acclaimed filmmaker of "Morvern Callar," with whom Swinton is close to wrapping the eagerly awaited adaptation of Lionel Shriver's "We Need to Talk About Kevin."
There's a theme to be found in Swinton's penchant for playing mothers who don't necessarily learn to become better parents from their children but, instead, discover something they didn't know about themselves from their progeny. Having 12-year-old twins of her own, Swinton says her main contribution to "I Am Love" was helping to shape the portrait of Emma's daughter, an art student whose revelation that she's a lesbian is one of the driving reasons for Emma to shake up her own lifestyle.
"There's something the daughter releases [Emma] into which she can't find by herself," said Swinton. "I think that's one of the things that I personally feel very strongly — that privilege of being a parent is that it provides you with what you need to go on."