I Am Love is an accurate declaration from a film that took eight years to get made, finding funding and support by the passionate advocacy of its two auteurs, Italian director Luca Guadagnino and star Tilda Swinton. These collaborators developed this story of an haute-bourgeois Milanese family with the intention of creating an old-fashioned melodrama, flagrantly against-the-grain of most contemporary cinema, yet also striving to be a new kind of style-based cinema. Guadagnino uses every tool at his disposal to overwhelm the audience with sensations and fictional histories. It is operatic and democratic filmmaking. I had a chance to talk with Guadagnino earlier this year.
The L: To me, it's a very feminine film. Well, we can get into that... But it also seems very old-fashioned, almost strictly old-fashioned, definitively old-fashioned. I know you even used some classic cinema tools in the film. Can you tell me about that?
Luca Guadagnino: I think that the great era of cinema lies very much in the late 40s to the late 60s, for me. And I think those movies were so strong, so powerful, entertaining, so radical, and so subversive in the form and the thematics, and—let's use a bad word—the ideology, that, for me, it's always important to go back to that legacy in order to understand the movie to be done. So I don't know if I Am Love is old-fashioned... probably. I'd like to think that the movie is a bridge between the past and the future, surpassing the present, in a way. The present being a place where the language of cinema is neglected in favor of a televisual storytelling that completely denies space as an important factor.
I used a three-wheeled dolly, a sort of early-stage steadicam. It's much more strong, much more interesting than a steadicam.
The L:Instead of handheld?
LG: Handheld is a noble rhetoric figure in filmmaking, but I believe that when you use handheld to try to mock reality... it's simply awful.
The L: Something that you said, the bridging of the past and the future, and concentrating on space, reminds me of one scene in particular in your film. The film starts as old-fashioned melodrama, and then in that scene transitions to something else, another kind of melodrama, maybe. It's the scene where she's driving to Sanremo, with her Vertigo hairdo, and it's very much from her point-of-view. And then suddenly, in this very short scene, the shape of her hair is echoed in the architecture and then the nature surrounding her. And then the film takes on this soft-focus style, with nature shots. What were your references for this part of the film?
LG: Many references. Mostly painterly references, photographic references. We looked a lot at the work of Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff, great, great German photographers. Russian avant-gardists like Malevich or Pougny. We had a book of references like this [He stretches wide with his hands].
The L: And not just filmic references?
LG: If you see a picture or a painting you have to think a lot. When you see a movie, you tend to mock. I don't wanna mock, I don't want to copycat. I don't want to reproduce a sequence, I want to understand the spirit of the reaction. I want to be, in a Friedkin movie, possessed by Hitchcock. I don't want to simply copy Hitchcock.
The L: What do you mean, exactly, "possessed by Hitchcock"?
LG: As if the demon of Hitchcock came back from the underworld and faced the comtemporarality of where I'm living and tried to do something now.
The L: What would Hitchcock do.
LG: What would Hitchcock do, instead of copycat Hitchcock. And I don't know if I get that, but that's what I try to do. And when you see a painting, the mystery is so strong in a single image, you can really go into that, to try to understand...
The L: You actually use some Morandi paintings.
LG: We shot fake Morandis. Nobody would have allowed real Morandis to be used in the movie, also the insurance would have been so strong. But Morandi is another great reference. What is the mystery in those bottles? What it is? Maybe it's doubt, or maybe it's like the universe, the cosmos, in one frame.
The L: And you use it in an interesting way, along with the photographs of the family. Those Morandis are interesting—what is the mystery of something so stationary but over a long period of time? And I think you imply that same sense of time over stationary space with the family, with those old photographs. You know what I mean?
LG: I do know, and I agree with you.
The L: You do so much in that quick transition, from the photographs to the Morandis to spaces of the house and back to the dinner table, it's such a history, in a few shots. What do you think is the point of view there?
The L: It's no one character? It's the point of view of the legacy?
LG: It's the point of view of Legacy. It's the point of view of the family and the social class. I like the idea of attempting to reproduce the essence of class, the way an essay can do, without the complicated language of an essay, but with the power of a flow of images.
The L: So you call this a "social melodrama," and I want to talk about the melodrama, but now that we're talking about the social... You do present this in a way that's beyond words. The character of Eva, for instance, is so interesting.
LG: Thank you. I like that character. And that actress (Diane Fleri) was fantastic, wasn't she?
The L: She was perfect, but so were the clothes. You presented that character almost entirely through her clothes.
LG: I tell you, I believe in the power of hair, make-up and costume—as a director. Many colleagues, they don't know anything about make-up and hair or costume work. They think it's about being pretty. It's not true! A director must know how a hairdo can express a character, or how the clothing can do this.
The L: Maybe that's why I told you I think it's a feminine film. Because of the textures and the clothes and the hair...
LG: I'm obsessed with these things. Obsessed! I am like a pain-in-the ass, when it comes to that.
The L: You do so much with, for instance, that Hermes orange that the Swinton character, Emma, wears. And the fact that fact that Eva...
LG: That white Yohji Yamamoto Y-3 dress that she wears when she goes to the restaurant with her future mother and grandmother in-law?!
The L: It's perfect. It's so tacky and sexy...
LG: It's tacky and sexy and it's hip, because the movie takes place in 2003, and that's the third collection of Y-3. And me and my costume designer were banging our heads to find that piece. Because we wanted Eva do be this hip, contemporary girl, right in the middle of things—no taste—but very feminine, and cannot help choosing the wrong thing at this important event: that ponytail hairdo, and this generous body in those sporty clothes—this is hip. I like this.
The L: And this legacy ends. With her, alone. It's amazing.
LG: Yes, I like this.
The L: And yet, I could tell that you're not entirely sympathetic with this character, yet that particular ending feels gleeful and triumphant.
LG: I don't like to judge people. I mean, I can judge the public action of people who have responsibilities in our world—I can be very harsh on that. But how can you judge someone like Eva? She's like that. And they're judging Eva.
The L: I see, you're not judging but looking at the judgement of Eva...
LG: And you know how many Evas I have as friends? More than Emmas! (Laughs.) Because the world is of the Evas.
The L: So lets go back to melodramas. What drew you to that genre, the melodrama?
LG: I like cinema! And what is better than melodrama to express a love of cinema?
The L: And do you think there's been a successful melodrama lately, in say the last thirty years?
LG: In the last thirty years? Oh yeah! Beloved by Jonathan Demme. Masterpiece. Flower of My Secret by Pedro Almodovar is a masterpiece. The Age of Innocence. Masterpiece. But, again, I try not to judge. I know that melodrama is a neglected genre now...
The L: Well, people keep comparing you with Visconti. But to me it's much more Minnelli.
LG: Oh, I love it. You remember the movie Il bruto e la bella. But I don't know the name is in English.
The L: Two Weeks in Another Town? [I had no idea what he said, so suggested the only film I could think of that takes place in Italy. He meant The Bad and the Beautiful.]
LG: Also, also... Minnelli, Minnelli, Minnelli, Minnelli. My God, Minnelli. You know how much I love Minnelli? It's so amazing, it's so strong. Why people don't make movies like that anymore...?
The L: I know. I don't know! For me, what makes it such a Minnelli movie is the risks you take.
LG: You have to take risks. Nick Ray! He was taking so much risks. You must take risks if you do a movie. You cannot play it safe. What's that? What the hell is that? Do you have to keep your bank account safe? I don't understand! It's not a job for people who want to be rich, to be a movie director. You can become rich, or not, but you if you think of making a movie and not taking risks... Look at Tarantino. He's still taking risks.
The L: You're taking risks towards emotion, though. But it is a neglected genre, and you've done a kind of redemption of the melodrama. But I'm very curious, what do you think of Lars Von Trier, another director who's worked in this genre?
[He looks at me for a minute, as if to gauge if what he's about to say is safe.]
LG: Can I say something unpopular here? I think Lars Von Trier is a fraud. I think that Lars Von Trier is a commercial director. He has the skills and the intelligence and the capacity and the talent of a copywriter of a great commercial advertising agency. He's like that for me. He is one of the most important advertisers in the world. He's like the thirteen-year-old boy who wants to impress the mother by putting his finger in his own shit. That's him. I'm not interested in that boy, and I'm not interested in that shit. Basically, I'm bored watching his movies. And I think this redundant, boring use of narcissism against women and this mysogonism... Lars Von Trier is irrelevant, and I've spent too many words to describe this cinema.
The L: But you have the opposite approach to melodrama, not at all misogynistic.
LG: It has never been misogynistic.
The L: It's like he misunderstands melodrama, and just uses it for this voyeuristic destruction of women...
LG: No, he does it for his bank account. He's a great businessman.
The L: That's true. OK, so yours is a woman's film. You made this in collaboration with Tilda Swinton. Can you tell me about that collaboration. Was she a muse?
LG: No no no. Muse is something passive; I cannot ever say she is passive. We are collaborators. We are partners. I believe that collaboration is something intimate. I met Bertolucci once, and he invited me to his editing room. And he talked to me for ten minutes and then said, Now Luca, you know a movie and an editing room is like a bedroom and now I'm making love with Pietro Scalia, and you have to leave us alone. I believe that.
The L: Ok, then I won't pry. But let me ask you about some other casting. For instance, Gabriele Ferzetti?
LG: Me and Tilda were strongly believing in a movie that has the legacy of the movies that we love. And Gabriele Ferzetti is not only a great, great actor—he's like a lion—but he's also in L'avventura.
The L: And on one hand you have someone from L'avventura, and then on the other hand you have someone from, and maybe even more interesting....
LG: Death in Venice, and Barry Lyndon, and Cabaret.
The L: Yes, so tell me about casting Marisa Berenson.
LG: This is one of the fruits of the collaborations with Tilda. She called me once after a show of Christian Dior Haute Coutoure in Paris. She said, "I sat beside Marisa Berenson and she is so fantastic. And you should meet her; she would be fantastic for the role of the mother." This was Tilda's idea. And she is fantastic.
The L: And the composer John Adams?
LG: I got to know John Adams' music through a friend who gave me a CD five years ago. And I absolutely felt that this is the music, that I had never heard, but I had in my mind all along. And we shot the movie with the music of Adams.
The L: On the set?
LG: On the set. And then I didn't want to use anything else, any soundtrack composer. And Tilda wrote an email to John Adams. And we showed him a rough cut of the movie, and he luckily completely embraced the movie.
The L: So the music wasn't recorded for the images, but the images created for the music?
LG: The images were created with the music. Also for the music sometimes.
The L: I have to say, I fell in love with the film at the credits.
LG: In the beginning or at the end?
The L: In the beginning. With that text!
LG: That was made by hand by a calligrapher who studied for us all the text of the Italian films of the fifties and sixties.
The L: You're kidding.
LG: We carved out the movie by hand, by hand! Every single detail.
The L: I have to talk to you about food. It's a great food movie, like Jeanne Dielman...
LG: [Whispers reverently.] Oh, Jeanne Dielman, I love. I went to a film festival once and saw Jeanne Dielman at 9 o'clock in the morning. And I was hypnotized, mesmerized by this, for hours. Now that you are quoting it, I also used a lot of Jeanne Dielman for I Am Love. Of course, we don't have the gravitas and the austerity of Chantal Akerman. But the lesson, we tried to get the lesson of Chantal Akerman.
The L: So, do you cook?
LG: I am a cook.
The L: Do you see similarities between the cooking process and filmmaking?
LG: It's about collaborators, it's about tools, and it's about, most importantly, shaping a new form out of the natural ingredients.
The L: You've made such an epic, with this film, and you're young. Do you go bigger or smaller next?
LG: I would like to make something like Passage to India. E.M. Forster, but... rock'n'roll.
The L: You mentioned Jeanne Dielman and Minnelli, what other films do you like?
LG: I love Showgirls. That's a feminist movie.
The L: [Laughs] I prefer Basic Instinct, as a feminist film.
LG: Watch it again.
The L: Showgirls?
LG: You're right in some ways. But Showgirls is subversive, completely subversive. It's like Lacan would say, woman doesn't exist. It's a construct. And you see the process of constructing this identity and how the women can rub off this identity.
The L: Is a drag queen movie a feminist movie? That elimination, that woman doesn't exist?
LG: No it's against that concept. It's not a drag queen movie. Watch it again! Cahiers du Cinema dedicated like forty pages.
The L: I know. My favorite filmmaker, Jacques Rivette, loves that film, but I don't know...
LG: Since you mention Jacques Rivette. La belle noiseuse, that's a good movie.
The L: I know! The way the body is used in that movie!
LG: I want to make a movie like that. That's what I want to do.
The L: From a clothing movie to a body movie? You know who you should meet? The costume designer and costume scholar Deborah Landis.
LG: Deborah Nadoolman Landis?
The L: You know her?
LG: I don't know her, but I know her. She's a genius. You have no idea how much I love her. And John Landis. You cannot believe how much I love John Landis. He's one of my.... Oh my God.
The L: Really? Do you like An American Werewolf in London?
LG: Masterpiece of all time.