Tilda Swinton

Tilda Swinton

More often than not, it is the materials they are crafted of that lend paintings and sculptures their final meaning. The stone, the size of the canvas, texture and color slowly reveal their secrets. Matter is not just at the service of the creator, but is a creative entity in and of itself. The same could be said of Tilda Swinton. It would an understatement to call her a muse, because she is more than inspirational, more than a passive subject waiting to be molded into shape; she is part of the creative act itself. This aspect of her work ethic is most evident in the films she did with the cult British director Derek Jarman, under whose direction she began her career in Caravaggio (1986) after playing with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Back in 2014, she is quoted as saying that, as an actress, she sees herself as somehow representing the portraits of her ancestors. She fits in this frame, cropped into something more than an individual. But when it comes to Tilda Swinton, representation goes way beyond merely playing another: she becomes herself through the eyes of others. Ethereal and free-flowing, she has the capacity to be many things; a capacity for transformation that subtly, sometimes radically, infects each of her characters. She has turned the concept of what it is to be a woman on its head, not just by roles like the one she played in Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992), but because of her indefinable presence; a presence that gives us a fresh perspective of the hyper-sexuality that underpins traditional ideals of beauty, which in Swinton acquire a mysterious tint.

What is beauty? What is its role in determining what is “feminine” and in stage presence? At times Tilda seems to levitate before us and inhabit the characters she has played in the 50-plus films she has appeared in and that encompass almost every genre, with a charming uniqueness that can be summed up by the love with which Jarmusch filmed her in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). In a memorable scene that focuses on her character, from the way she fills the frame it would seem it is more about the actress than the character she is embodying. Tilda picks her parts with total clarity, while her obvious preference for riskier projects has made her a building block of the work of directors like Béla Tarr, Wes Anderson, Érick Zonka and Lynne Ramsay, among others. “We’ve had a nice life,” says her character in the David Bowie video clip The Stars Are Out Tonight, which would appear to aptly define her beautiful, pleasurable–and disturbing–passage through that time, a fleeting work of mirrors and ages that link her to that other indefinable, ethereal being: Bowie.

My first time at Cannes, I wasn’t familiar with the festival or what a star was. She appeared in the first film I saw, Béla Tarr’s The Man from London, without makeup, exuding that fascinating je ne sais quoi. Seeing her in the flesh was like being in the presence of a creature from another world. Real and at the same time not. Beautiful and at the same time not, with those gazelle eyes, always alert, flitting back and forth in the knowledge something is lurking in the bush, but showing no sign of fear; eyes that look straight ahead, unblinkered, without physical or spiritual impediments.

With the passing of time, I’ve come to think of Tilda as that block of marble that tells the sculptor what shape to give it. Matter that is always new, always well-disposed, that impregnates all that surrounds it. Watching Orlando again, I thought of the love she pours into all her characters, a love that is part of her, because at the end of the day, films, like everything we do, are not foreign to who we are. It couldn’t be any other way.

To cast Tilda is to choose transparency and levity. It’s as if she doesn’t want to burden the world with her weight. If we had to choose one gift she has it would have to be force, not in the conventional sense, but the force of the love and beauty on which her colossal weight rests.