SPOTLIGHT: TILDA SWINTON

This season the subject of Cinémathèque’s Annual Focus Series is the artist Tilda Swinton. A staple resident in the small community of paragon performers, she has sustained an idiosyncratic momentum throughout her career. Presently, Swinton is a somewhat simultaneous fixture in the world of visual art. As an occasional collaborator and frequent muse, she has established herself as a performance artist; debuting a live art piece in 1995 with Cornelia Parker and then again in 2013 as the MoMa installation The Maybe, and as a model; as the omnipresent face of Chanel in 2013. Our focus however, is Swinton’s durative presence in the realm of cinema. Admittedly, a comprehensive collection is difficult to navigate for such a dimensional talent. Instinctively, we have located Swinton’s demonstrative range in four films: The Last of England (1988), Young Adam (2003), Julia (2008), and I Am Love (2009). Showcased in the ensuing collection is a notable progression of Swinton’s flexibility as a performer and her unwavering affinity for unique projects.

Leading our collection is Derek Jarman’s 1988 film The Last of England. Perhaps Jarman’s most experimental, this film collected awards from the Berlin Film Festival, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for Independent and Experimental Film and Video, the Teddy Awards, and the International Confederation of Art Cinema. Following the passing of the section 28 Local Government Act through British Parliament (an act effectively extinguishing any promotion of homosexuality in the media), The Last of England is a volatile reaction to homosexual condemnation. Tethered by the ambient context of Jarman’s HIV diagnosis as well as the death of his father, Swinton infuses fierce Anti-Thatcherism with improvisational protest.

A frantic bride twirling among flaming debris, alternated with a flowery and vibrant retrospective self. She personifies Jarman’s ominous vision of country and status quo.

In 2003, Swinton found herself aside Ewan McGregor and Peter Mullan in David Mackenzie’s film Young Adam. After receiving enthusiastic reviews at Cannes it was copiously awarded by the British Independent Film Awards, and welcomed at the Edinburgh International Film Festival as Best New British Feature film. Based on a book by Alexander Trocchi, the film slowly pieces together the tragic fate of young girl found floating in the water of a Scottish shipyard. All three players assume their roles with ease. Joe, played by McGregor, confidently wedges his way into the already dismal marriage of Ella (Swinton) and Leslie (Mullan). An almost impossible affair ripens between Joe and Ella within the tight confines of the family barge.

Meanwhile, an ineffectual Leslie gambles, drinks, plays guitar, and lies in the next room frustratingly unaware. Joe’s predatory nature reveals itself quickly however as we learn of his connection to the drowned woman.

Mackenzie’s grim depiction of 1950s Scottish working class draws out a commandeering performance by Swinton as Ella, who heavy-handedly runs the barge while casually negotiating a lover and a husband. Though a supporting role to our hero Joe, Swinton hoists Ella to a proportional level. She is a glaring counterpart that meets his chronic sexual appetite with a sober and resigned disposition.

Erick Zonca’s 2008 film Julia draws inspiration from Cassavettes’ 1980 Gloria, Swinton elaborates the uncomfortable heroin while Zonca provides her with a familiar California backdrop. Julia is introduced as a catastrophe, a forty year old drunk wallowing in promiscuity and self-hatred. She is a character that seems anomalous to Swinton’s repertoire but perfectly tailored to her ambitious talent just the same. She is not hard to hate. In fact, her repulsiveness is completely believable because it is completely intact. From her clownishly disheveled hair and makeup right down to her flimsy heels, Julia is a larger than life mess towering over everyone around her. The only thing more ridiculous than the self-proclaimed “disaster” is a kidnapping scheme offered to her by her neighbor Elena. Hatched out of desperation, the plan crumbles and changes along with the amount of ransom that Julia thinks she deserves. A measly five thousand sky rockets to two million as she is muscled deeper in over her head. Gradually, her smudged makeup and garish accessories wear away revealing the Swintenesque endurance that can bring any character back from the brink. The slight glimpses of tenderness toward her hostage become more frequent as do the private episodes of panicky self-loathing.

Any redemption that Julia can find is further embedded in Zonca’s underlying commentaries First, the destructive nature of alcoholism and the correlative violence acted out against children, a reoccurring monologue recited to Julia by those around her as a cautionary tale of alcohol abuse. Second, the misdirected attention applied to the Mexican border, Julia is seemingly discovered and pursued by a helicopter while harboring the boy. She happens upon refuge in Mexico and the authorities resume their preoccupation with illegal immigrants, letting her and her hostage slip through their fingers. Together, Swinton’s provocative portrayal and Zonca’s loaded story line solidified Julia’s candidacy for the 2008 Berlin Film Festival’s Official Selection.

Often in her career, Swinton has found a special compatibility with certain directors. Her longstanding fondness for and collaboration with Luca Guadagnino have yielded an impressive collection of films including: The Protagonists (1999), The Love Factory (2002), A Bigger Splash (2015), and the concluding film of our focus series I Am Love (2009). As expected, Swinton’s commitment to the role as Emma Recchi, a Russian transplant to Milan’s Italian upper class, is continually on par with Guadagnino’s flare for vibrant and meaningful visuals.

In his glowing review Roger Ebert notes, “Tilda Swinton is a daring actress who doesn't project emotions so much as embody them. “I Am Love” provides an ideal role for her, in that her actions speak instead of words.” Naturally, Swinton internalizes the essential identities of her character: a devoted mother, a conflicted wife, and a covert lover, all delivered in a very palpable performance. In the one evening that we are introduced to Emma she superintends every minute detail of her family’s affairs. The carefully designed seating plan with its constant revisions speaks volumes of her attentive and adhesive influence over the family. Subtle as they are, Guadagnino ensures that even her quiet gestures do not go unnoticed. An acute camera catches slight but weighty moments of Emma’s matrimonial servility; her husband truncates her grooming to shackle her wrists with bracelets before the family dinner, during which she spends more time directing the staff from her seat than engaging with her guests. Guadagnino’s lens is preoccupied with Swinton’s gaze, the only manifestation of Emma’s intense longing.  Her understated physicality maintains her opacity throughout even the most sensual of scenes. Meanwhile Guadagnino boldly harnesses scenery and architecture in order to exaggerate Emma’s departure from a restrictive reality. She travels to great lengths to luxuriate in an affair. Be it a never-ending drive along a country road to a secluded farm wherein a fragmented radio signals the substantial passage of time, or her winding descent down a long hidden staircase for a secret rendezvous.

Ebert’s summation resonates further when considering Swinton’s laborious preparation for her role. She not only learned to speak Italian, but with a Russian accent. In a way, Emma’s multidirectional perfectionism mirrors Swinton’s own involvement in the film. As a producer, an editor, and of course an actor, she wholeheartedly threw herself into the realization of what had been a seven-year endeavor for both herself and Guadagnino. In conversation with Dave Calhoun for Time Out London, Swinton recalls her motivation for the project in the first place saying, “Back then Luca and I started talking about the kind of cinema we want to engage ourselves with, which is a new kind of sensational cinema.” Indeed, I Am Love is just that, visually arousing and intensely dramatic, a perfect series finale. 

Though a sampling of Swinton’s cinematic works, these four films are robust examples of her capacity as a performer and artistic ally. Ever so humble about her influence, it is precisely her courteous nature and reiterated respect for dramaturgy that maintain our curiosity. Cinémathèque is excited to bring a quaint collection of films that we feel position Swinton as a quintessential component in Contemporary Cinema.