POSTED ON OCTOBER 13, 2017
Charlize Theron plays a prostitute soaked in misery in Monster, Christian Bale an emaciated worker in The Machinist, Matthew McConaughey an HIV positive man on death’s doorstep in Dallas Buyers Club... Whether through drastic physical changes, prostheses or digital effects, the history of Hollywood cinema is full of transformations that defy our understanding.
Film after film, Tilda Swinton takes the reinvention exercise to the limit. The evidence is clear from ten of her roles - in vampire flicks, arty films, confirmed blockbusters, or regressive comedies – where she builds a chameleon’s filmography for the sole pleasure of the game.
Tilda Swinton makes the transition from the theater stage to cinema screens in a single sweep in the late 1980s, with the androgynous grace she is known for. Trained classically, yet fascinated by the avant-garde, she gains attention at the Venice Film Festival in Edward II by Derek Jenman, an experimental adaptation of a Christopher Marlowe play. The following year, the full range of her capacities will come to light… and through the perfect vehicle: in the adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando places her in the stockings of a poet, who changes sex over the centuries, conforming to the gender standards of each respective era, becoming enamored with the great names of literature along the way.
After the prowess of Orlando, Tilda Swinton makes her way to the most audacious recesses of American independent cinema, shooting Vanilla Sky by Cameron Crowe and Adaptation. by Spike Jonze. However, it is the “mainstream” movie that will bring her recognition on par with her curiosity: The Chronicles of Narnia, a transposition to the big screen of the classic adolescent fantasy. Swinton, already unrecognizable and pluralistic, is at once a cold beauty with translucent skin and a dreadlock-sporting wild child, incarnating the cruel witch Jadis, a self-proclaimed queen of a world locked in winter. Her former classmate, Princess Diana, would have approved.
On the heels of The Chronicles of Narnia, Tilda Swinton could have been content to play extravagant characters, adapting her performance to the fancy costumes tailor-made for her. But it would be a mistake to claim to know her (even if no one can forget the unconventional fruity frock she wore at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001). After appearances in films by the Coen brothers and David Fincher, she does an about-face, in a role she became known for, in We Need to Talk about Kevin. The movie centers, in a non-sensationalized way, on school shootings. Normalized to the core, she plays Eva, the emaciated mother of a troubled teenager. And her staring eyes with the fledgling-just-fallen-from-the-nest expression make her character all the more powerful.
Daughter of a high-ranking military officer and top of her class in political science, Tilda Swinton was a very active member of the Communist Party during her studies. With this adaptation of a standard of a science fiction graphic novel, Bong Joon-ho offers her the opportunity to revel in this past by giving her the role of Mason, a dystopic cousin of Margaret Thatcher’s. Mason ensures the perpetuation of social segregation at work in the train of survivors to a glacial apocalypse (giving the film its title). It is perhaps her most grotesque role, but also one of the most unflinchingly feminist: her teeth protruding, her breasts drooping, her coke-bottle glasses… She shatters the cliché of the ultra-sexy wicked woman - and that of the ultra-virile villain. (By the way, the role was written for a man). Four years later, Bong Joon-ho will make her a merciless businesswoman in Okja, not without disfiguring her once more, this time with a dental apparatus (naturally).
Jim Jarmusch is among the first directors to become attached to Tilda Swinton (Broken Flowers). Beyond a certain capillary kinship, it was formerly the director of Dead Man who exemplified the ancestral grace of the Scottish beanpole (she is nearly six feet tall). In very Melvilian film, The Limits of Control, wearing a cowboy hat, she is a character defined by her platinum blondness… Witness the iconic scene that shows her advancing step by step in slow-mo, with the massive guitars of the Japanese band Boris in the background. Afterward, and especially, in Only Lovers Left Alive she is ghostlier than ever, playing a vampiress of multi-centennial, mind-blowing coolness. Knowing that Tilda Swinton is from one of only three British families whose genealogy dates back to the Norman invasions, one begins to wonder!
From Christopher Walken emerging as a dancer for Fatboy Slim, to Jake Gyllenhaal, massacring partygoers for The Shoes, actors actively participating in the musical universe are commonplace. One of the most successful involves is the Thin White Duke and Tilda Swinton, the latter once again "magnified" by an improbable hairstyle (an end-of-the-century Marilyn Monroe do). The pair interpret a retro Hollywood couple tracked by two young stars, hell-bent on tormenting them. A clip that raises disturbing possibilities: since Tilda Swinton and David Bowie share such a striking resemblance, many dream of seeing a reproduction of the mimetic feat by Cate Blanchett and Bob Dylan!
The youth-obsessed tyranny that permeates Hollywood? Tilda Swinton couldn’t care less. Producers’ prerogatives make them reluctant to hire actors (and mainly actresses) of a slightly advanced age, behavior that incites many of her peers to go under the knife or make use of new imaging technologies, in the relentless quest for the secret of eternal youth. Tilda Swinton, on the other hand, does not hesitate to grow old prematurely! Her role in The Grand Budapest Hotel, her second collaboration with Wes Anderson after Moonrise Kingdom, is that of a nearly-blind pretentious old bag, coiffed like an oyster and constellated with sun spots. These “shortcomings” will not stop her from charming Ralph Fiennes and helping the film take home a well-deserved Oscar for the Best Makeup and Hairstyling.
A reedlike figure with avian features and a piercing glance: even in everyday situations, the actress looks like a hybrid who has escaped from the pages of Ovid’s narrative poem, Metamorphoses. So much so, that Tilda Swinton must resort to several tricks to look like a "normal" woman in Judd Apatow’s comedy alongside Amy Schumer. She dons a smooth, trendy hairstyle, a self-tanner, girly makeup… Defying her accent, Swinton composes a striking prototype of the Californian blonde, in what remains her most surprising role to date. A triumph.
To see her change out of her skin from one feature film to the next, we think that if Tilda Swinton were a Marvel character, she would be Mystique, the metamorphic mercenary who gives the X-Men a run for their money. For her first incursion into the super-hero world, however, it is a very different character that befalls her, namely The Ancient One, a powerful (and bald!) Zen entity she incarnates, alongside another atypical British presence (Benedict Cumberbatch). The assignment of the role initially resulted in the production being accused of whitewashing; Tilda Swinton’s character was supposed to be an Asian man. But after seeing the actress's non-gender-based performance, everyone was in agreement – and in the end, it is Swinton who dreams of a spin-off devoted to The Ancient One.
For now, the details of Dario Argento's remake of the bloody opera are sketchy. If only Tilda Swinton would add another starkly different look to her repertoire... The first pictures from the filming set confirm it- we see her made up as a shriveled old man, his face lined with wrinkles. The wrinkles belong to her latest character, Madame Blanc, the director of the fatal dance academy (in the 1977 original, Jessica Harper submits to the chromatic assaults of the giallo master). Until the chameleon chooses her next hue…