"We've been talking about making this film for seven years," Tilda Swinton said at the international premiere of Luca Guadagnino's "I Am Love," which she produced and stars in. "Luca and I are very, very old friends. I think we started to talk about a film that we wanted to see, which is pretty much what you just saw. [It is] a kind of emotional cinema that we were looking for that is very often related to a cinema from the past. And very often you hear people saying 'well, that cinema doesn't exist anymore.'"
With "Love," Guadagnino and Swinton have certainly proved those people wrong. Gloriously melodramatic – like a cinematic opera – "Love" details the refined world of a wealthy Italian family as a collison of tradition and modernity unravels it. The film earned raves when it premiered in Venice last week and has met with a similar response at its first screening in Toronto Friday night.
At the screening, Toronto International Film Festival CEO Piers Handling introduced the film quite passionately, comparing it to Luchino Visconti's "The Leopard."
"Of course we are inspired by Visconti," Swinton said after the screening. "Who isn't? But this is not the futile artistocracy of Visconti's palette. This is something much more modern and very particular that we felt had not really been looked at in cinema – kind of an old bourgeois milieu which is kind of this grid – and we wanted to look at the revolution that love might cause in such a grid."
The film that evolved from this idea finds Swinton's character at the center of that grid, a Russian émigré who married into the family and feels repression in her post-empty nest existence. After her father-in-law passes on the lucrative family business to her husband and, unexpectedly, her son, the entire family begins to unthread quite spectacularly, leading to an intense finale that seemed to leave much of the Toronto audience breathless.
Guadagnino and Swinton – who collaborated previously on 1999's "The Protagonists" – obviously have facilitated a powerful working relationship beyond their lengthy friendship. Richly detailed and gorgeously shot, "I Am Love" handles itself with remarkable precision, bringing forth a portrait of upper-class mores very much anchored by Swinton's masterful handling of a very complex role.
Significantly impressive in that latter regard is the added challenge of Swinton having to learn the part in both Russian and Russian-accented Italian.
"It's quite easy," Swinton joked when asked of the task. "Lots of people do it! Though I had the interesting get-out of not having to sound like an Italian. But what was maybe more of a challenge was trying to speak like an authetic Russian. So I hope there are no Russians here."
Guadagnino joked about one of Swinton's language-learning rough spots when an audience member asked her what the most difficult scene to shoot was (likely expecting her to mention one of the film's quite graphic sex scenes). "I know what it is," he answered, and then whispered his certainty into Swinton's ear.
"Ah yes, the scene in the kitchen," Swinton said in response. "Nothing more exotic than that, I'm afraid. There was a scene in the kitchen when I was cooking fish, and giving a rather long Italian speech, which had been written the night before. And in true Marlon Brando style, we had Italian written all over the kitchen – on pots, pans… It's worth seeing the film again just to see if you can see them."
Toronto festival goers can do just that – or for the first time – when the film rescreens tomorrow night and then again on Friday.