The American Society of Cinematographers

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I Am Love
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Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux creates artful images for the sensous Italian melodrama I Am Love.

Photos and frame grabs courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
It’s been years since Italy has produced a film about the life of the haute bourgeoisie as sumptuous, sensuous and grand as I Am Love (Io Sono l’Amore). References to Luchino Visconti’s films have peppered reviews, and director Luca Guadagnino acknowledges that he drew from that well, but, he insists, “I wanted to create my own prototype.” Helping Guadagnino realize that ambition was French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, whose work on Erick Zonca’s Julia (2008) had caught his eye.

I Am Love portrays two worlds, each beautiful and seductive in its own way. The story begins in the exquisitely appointed palazzo of the Recchi family, a modern-day dynasty in the textile industry. When paterfamilias Edoardo Recchi Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti) announces his retirement and passes the torch to his son, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), and grandson, Edoardo Jr. (Flavio Parenti), during a birthday dinner, the family’s comfortable patterns begin to unravel. The biggest upheaval involves Emma (Tilda Swinton), Tancredi’s Russian-born trophy wife, who falls in love with one of her son’s friends, a young chef named Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). Edoardo and Antonio decide to partner on a restaurant near San Remo, and it is in this bucolic Riviera setting that Emma and Antonio first entwine.

Developed by Guadagnino and Swinton over seven years, I Am Love was shot over 45 days mostly on practical locations in Milan, San Remo and the village of Castel Vittorio, near the French border. “From the beginning, we talked about the two worlds,” recalls Le Saux. “The world of the Recchis is strict, with more contrast, wide angles and a colder feel in the characters’ relationships. For the countryside, Luca wanted natural light, longer lenses, more close-ups and no depth-of-field, and we strove to be open to catching everything that happened on set.”

The filmmakers’ visual touchstones included Gustav Courbet, Russian Constructivist Kazimir Malevich and Italian painter Giovanni Boldini, and of Visconti’s films, Rocco and His Brothers was particularly influential. “That film helped with all the camera moves and also had the light we were after in the villa scenes; we wanted the feel to be rich and majestic but not luxe,” says Le Saux. “We didn’t want something that would look like a commercial, with too much light, too much brilliance.”

During preproduction, Le Saux helped Guadagnino narrow down his tools of choice. “Luca is probably the most technical director I’ve worked with,” observes Le Saux, who has also collaborated with François Ozon and Olivier Assayas. “He knows everything about cameras and lenses. I think he can tell you every special speed that Christopher Doyle [HKSC] used on a Wong Kar-wai movie in the Nineties! My work was to show him a lot of things — aspect ratio, filters, film stocks, lenses and so on — and then reduce and explain why we didn’t need this or that. My job consisted of simplifying and finding a good way to shoot the story.” Guadagnino adds, “My dream is to spend four months with special technicians finding those things that fit my movie.”

Guadagnino originally wanted to frame the film in 1.33:1, “like The Magnificent Ambersons,” he says. But Le Saux dissuaded him. “I said, ‘It’s okay if you want the film to be shown on a cell phone, but to be on screens now, it has to be either 1.85 or 2.40,’” recalls Le Saux. “He was concerned about seeing the ceilings and the architecture of the palazzo, so, in the end, we chose 1.85.”

The palazzo was well worth exploiting. Built in the 1930s for a wealthy family, the Villa Necchi Campiglio was designed by Milanese architect Piero Portaluppi and is now a museum, which meant the filmmakers had to contend with severe restrictions on grip and lighting equipment. “It was difficult because they were always on our backs, watching,” says Le Saux. “It was impossible to put lights overhead, so almost everything went through the windows, but the windows were so huge that every light seemed small. Our budget was limited, so I was using natural light with reflectors and white bounce. I’d also try to determine the best hour for shooting, but each time, we were late.”

Le Saux operated the main camera, an Arricam Lite that was equipped with a Cooke S4 prime lens or an Angenieux Optimo 24–290mm zoom. “It’s a better way to feel the light,” he says of operating. “When I’m not looking through the camera, I cannot feel the light from inside the movie.” The B camera, which was infrequently used, was an Arri 535B.

To help differentiate the story’s two worlds, Le Saux used two different tungsten stocks: Kodak Vision3 500T 5219 for the palazzo and Fuji Eterna 250T 8553 for Antonio’s bungalow and garden. “With daylight stock, the contrast on the Riviera would have been too high, too strong,” he notes. The lovers’ world was intended to be soft and sensual, so filtration was also boosted for the countryside scenes; Le Saux used Tiffen Pro-Mist and Soft/FX filters, sometimes at levels as high as 1 or 2. “We used a lot of filters,” he notes. “The idea was to approximate the look of some of the 1970s film stocks. Sometimes we shot one extra take with a stronger filter, and if it was too much, we just didn’t use it. But we did go very far.”

For camera moves, Guadagnino wanted to echo the rectilinear lines of the Recchi palazzo and called for wide, low shots with a static camera or moves in straight lines. “For me, the production design always leads,” says the director. “That house somehow summarizes the weakness, the arrogance and the beauty of a class. It’s all about avoiding conflict, avoiding showing-off, but establishing power very strongly in this big block of marble. When you frame people in a sort of box, you can feel why they behave the way they behave.” Le Saux recalls that initially, Guadagnino took it a bit too far. “He wanted to use the 14mm and strange angles, low or high,” says the cinematographer. “I was trying to make it less extreme, because I don’t like when the camera is too visible.” Le Saux would often suggest a slightly longer lens. “I tended to stay in the 25mm to 32mm range inside the house, and in the 40mm to 200mm range when on the Optimo zoom in the countryside,” he says. (Extreme close-ups of flowers and insects were accomplished with a 200mm Arri Macro.)

The cinematographer also introduced some subtle camera moves in the palazzo. “Luca loves a static camera, but I like moving the camera,” he says. “So even when it was a static shot, I put it on wood or tracks and was always on the dolly, ready to move a little bit, to follow the actors and give a little sensation of movement.” These small moves contrasted with greater mobility in the countryside, where Le Saux was always following the actors on track or board.

I Am Love features two extended sequences in the palazzo’s dining room. In the first, more than a dozen members of the Recchi family gather to celebrate Edoardo Sr.’s birthday. In the second, the Recchis are entertaining prospective buyers of the company over dinner, which Emma has hired Antonio to cook. Concerned about the length of the first scene, Le Saux decided to break it up visually, determining that a traditional Italian lunch could easily stretch from midday into evening. “I thought it would be a good idea to start the lunch in daylight, then mix daylight and tungsten sources, and then go into night,” he says. “For the second dinner, where Emma’s son discovers her affair, I found a new way to show this room: with candles, like an annunciation of death.”

To prepare for the first dinner-table scene, Le Saux spent long hours in the location “watching how the natural light played and moved inside the house.” For the day scenes, he set two 6K HMIs and a 4K outside the enormous windows and bounced that light off the floor. By the time Edoardo Sr. makes his speech, night has fallen, and the lighting has changed to a strong overhead source bouncing off the white tablecloth; the bounce “reflects onto the faces of the people as a sort of inner light from that class,” Guadagnino marvels. “I think Yorick was very clever and intuitive about that. I asked him to do very dramatic lighting, and what he came up with is remarkable.”


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