It was also where the idea for I Am Love began to take shape. Part of the discussion is about the revolution of love—the idea that love isn’t really about coming together as a unit, but two lonely souls keeping each other company.
“There’s a romantic notion that you can deny your solitariness when you come together and you’re one,” says Swinton. “You stop doing the things that you used to do before you got together and you’re just one—you do everything together, and you’re never going to be lonely again. Which I think is a great waste of human existence. I think being lonely and solitary is a great resource and to be enjoyed. And if anything, love is going to push you further into that.
“Out of that we decided to make a film about someone for whom the revolution of love really does break everything. We knew that we wanted to make a story around a character I would play. So we knew she would be a woman. Slowly we worked out that we wanted her to be an alien of some sort. So given that I’m not Italian and that I would be an alien anyway, we decided to place it in an Italian high capitalistic situation where denial is really the rule of law and place her in the center of that milieu, so that when love strikes, the honesty of it explodes the situation that she’s been in.”
It didn’t matter to Swinton or Guardagnino that she didn’t speak Italian, or that she would be called upon to do so with a Russian accent. They wanted to redeem the idea of melodrama, wondering why it had fallen so out of vogue. They went to Russian novels for inspiration, and to the masters of cinema: Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk, Luchino Visconti. And they went to Milan.
“We started thinking about this bourgeouis situation, this grid, this very circumscribed world,” Swinton says. “It’s not the feudal aristocracy of Visconti; it’s something much more modern, much less humanistic. It’s got a lot to be extremely discreet about. These people made their enormous wealth during the fascistic era. And if you’re going to make a film about that milieu in Italy, you know you have to make it in Milan. You walk down what you think is a perfectly normal business street, and if go through a courtyard, you come to a nearly-palazzo, hidden, very discreetly hidden. It’s a very particular place and people live in a very particular way there. So you think of someone who comes from a very circumscribed situation. The film is set 10 years ago, so if you backdate it, she comes from Soviet Russia—from that situation into an even more circumscribed situation. She’s like an avatar. She has to learn a new language, a new way of walking, a new way of talking, a whole set of behaviors.”
Swinton knew two women who had indeed come from Soviet Russia to Italy, one who had settled in Milan and married into a similar situation as her character Emma. She learned from them about alienation, about “the imperative to acquire, the imperative to wear your existence on your person, the codification of your Salvatore Ferragamo shoes and your Damiani jewelry and your Diptyque candles and no way of actually accessing your personal taste or your personal spirit in any way.”
As a person out of her language, out of her culture, and naturally quiet, Emma became the perfect vehicle for Swinton to explore the ideas that have most interested her lately: loneliness and the inability to communicate. “I think there’s an idea that people are as articulate as lazy writers would like to make them,” she says. “They all sound like playwrights, and they all express themselves absolutely clearly to each other, and they all hear each other very clearly and are able to speak back with a very similar voice. What I’m very interested in as a film fan is a kind of cinema that actually looks at people finding it difficult to express themselves and finding themselves in a state of inarticulacy and a kind of state of silence, where they can’t necessarily rely on words.
“I think the cinema can do that better than any other art form, can actually take you into someone else’s inarticulacy. And it’s such a compassionate and humanistic thing to do, to show you that nobody else necessarily knows what they’re doing. And that, no matter how close up you go to someone, you can never really understand what they’re thinking. And that it’s all right—your failure to ever really be able to articulate your thoughts or your failure to really understand anybody else is really fine.”
Swinton discovered her own appreciation for solitude as a child. The daughter of a Scottish Major-General father and an Australian mother, Matilda was the lone girl among three brothers. When the youngest brother came along, she had wanted a girl so badly that she asked her mom to take him back. “I loved that moment when I was alone and I felt myself becoming lonely,” she said. “It’s like when you’re out in the cold and you begin to get a bit chilly. You just feel yourself begin to value company again, having been sitting alone in a haystack for two hours. You suddenly go, ‘Oh, I wonder what my brothers are doing.’”
She attended boarding schools in England and Scotland before graduating from Cambridge University in 1983. Two years later, she met playwright and painter John Byrne, who moved to London in 1990 to be with her. After Swinton gave birth to twin sons Xavier and Honor in 1998, the couple moved to Nairn, Scotland, just north of Inverness. But while Byrne remains her companion at home, she’s begun traveling with another love, her boyfriend-artist Sandro Kopp, whom she met on the set of Narnia, where he played a centaur. The 32-year-old has been on her arm at most of her public appearances, and he’s quietly at her side here at our lunch. The unusual situation has the apparent blessing of Byrne, and Kopp has even spent time with the family back home in the Highlands.
“The whole concept of romantic love,” she says, talking about the film, but also, you sense, explaining her non-traditional lifestyle, “that whole concept that there is one person who will complete you, who you are not complete without. And then this person arrives—and then again, there is only one. Ever. And they complete you, and therefore you are never complete without them. And at the same time you are somehow finished with them. There’s some kind of Saran Wrap around you as a unit. It feels so unhealthy, the pressure. And when you think of people really being, I would go so far as saying ‘indoctrinated’ in the feeling that that’s the only way to conduct their lives, they will not be able to be viable human beings unless they find this person to complete them. And then they have to stick to it. That’s it—that sort of hanging on for dear life. What do they do when they do feel lonely on a Wednesday morning?”
Instead, she professes love for two men, for her 12-year-old boys and for the many filmmakers who call her muse. Like Scottish auteur Lynne Ramsay, with whom she says she’s been developing an adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin. She’ll play the mother of a teenage boy who has murdered his classmates: “another alien.” She may have entered the world of acting half-heartedly, but she’s found her vocation since that first conversation with Jarman, searching, as she says of her mentor in Derek, for “that loose corner where we might prize up the carpet and uncover the rich slate of something we might recognize as spirit underneath, something raw and dusty and inarticulate, for heavens sake.”