Transformer: Tilda Swinton on donkeys, identity, and the nature of screen acting
by David Schwartz
Moving Image Source
The malleability of identity, the way that categories like gender and class confine us if we let them define us—these are among the subjects that Tilda Swinton has consistently explored in a varied body of work that encompasses the Super-8 experiments of British filmmaker Derek Jarman and such mainstream movies as Michael Clayton (2007), for which she won an Academy Award.
In Jarman's The Last of England (1987), a poetic assault on stultifying Thatcher-era England, Swinton improvised the film's climactic scene, as a frenzied bride who tears apart her gown and performs a whirling dance on a beach: a rite of transformation, an attempt to transcend fixed roles. In Sally Potter's Orlando (1992), which is being rereleased this week, Swinton plays an androgynous nobleman who changes sex and travels through time, trying to find his or her true self.
Fittingly, for someone who looks seriously at the roles we play, many of Swinton's best performances can be seen as meditations on the nature of acting. In a remarkable passage in Michael Clayton, we see Swinton's character, the high-powered corporate lawyer Karen Crowder, prepare for a video interview. As the film cuts between Crowder's nervous rehearsal in her hotel room and her polished performance in the interview, we see the disparity between the confident facade and the anxious actor. In one of the strongest performances of her career, in Erick Zonca's Julia (2008), she is an alcoholic whose life has become an outlandish performance motivated by her desperate need to connect with those around her. And in her latest film, the current arthouse hit I Am Love, she is Emma Recchi, a Russian native who has married into a wealthy Italian family. Emma's aristocratic veneer is a stylish performance; she maintains her social status only at the cost of repressing her true self, and sexuality. The contrast in style between Julia and Emma couldn't be greater; the former is a brash American whose psyche—and body—are in shambles. The latter is a refined, elegant woman who speaks fluent Italian with a Russian accent. Yet both characters are on a search for the same things: connection and authenticity.
Swinton herself has found connection in an intense series of cinematic collaborations; she seems drawn to directors whose films are labors of love (often with long gestation periods). And she has found authenticity in her astonishing performances, in work that is both physically and verbally articulate. In film after film, Swinton shows us that identity is more than a performance—it is a mystery.
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