Tribute to the actress Tilda Swinton in FICCI 58

Much more than a muse, the actress Tilda Swinton has been a constitutive part of the creative act for directors of the stature of Jim Jarmusch, Béla Tarr, Eric Zonka, Sally Potter, or Derek Jarman. The body –an actor’s main working instrument— in Tilda’s case seems to levitate at times, without disturbing the world with its weight. Her more than 50 films have covered almost all genres with a charming particularity. Eleven of the productions in which she has been an actress –and eventually co-director— will be part of the tribute that the 58th International Film Festival of Cartagena –FICCI— pays her. She will also participate in a Q&A session in Salón FICCI.
During her years as an English Literature student, Tilda Swinton began to get interested in the world of acting, especially theatre, which allowed her to become part of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her career in the film industry began thanks to Derek Jarman, in Carvaggio (1986), a film which marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration with this avant-garde artist and director.

As she herself said in 2014, her perspective as an actress could go back to the way she saw herself as a sort of representation of the portraits of her ancestors; always framed in something more than an individuality. But representation in Tilda Swinton goes beyond the cliché of being other: it is being herself through others. As an ethereal and fluid figure that can be many things, her capacity for transformation gravitates subtly and sometimes radically in each of her characters. Tilda redefines ideas of the feminine, not just because of roles such as those of Orlando (1992) by Sally Potter, but by her very presence, undefinable, one which gives another perspective of that hypersexuality that frames established beauty canons, which with Swinton acquire a mysterious character.

Winner of the Oscar in 2008 for her supporting role in Michael Clayton by Tony Gilroy, her charisma could be summed up in the love with which she is filmed by Jim Jarmusch in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), in a memorable sequence that turns around the character and her way of inhabiting the shot, and that would seem to say more of the actress than her character.

The presence of Tilda Swinton will be possible thanks to the British Council and Cine Colombia. Her potency as an actress will be able to be seen in the following productions:

Egomania - Island Without Hope (1986)
Director: Christoph Schlingensief

The obsessions of the ego and its demons are like desolate islands floating between the hell of disillusionment and the monsters of our darkest desires. In this baroque film that defies classification Tilda Swinton and Udo Kier wander through a post-apocalyptic landscape carved out of massive blocks of ice. Filmed in the Baltics, Egomania is about a young couple trapped on an island ruled by a vampire-like baron who calls himself the “Devil’s Aunt”. A series of characters with mythological qualities alternatively pursue and court them, forever trying to drive a wedge between them. Bordering on the absurd at times, a provocative play on sound and image accompanies the spectator into the realms of horror, romantic drama and music video, where the forces of good and evil inexorably battle it out. The elaborate soundtrack is full of pop culture references, insinuating, as one of the characters says, that “there’s not going to be a different end of the world: relentless fights filled with hate and love over incest and wealth”.

The Last of England (1987)
Director: Derek Jarman

An apocalyptical, but lyrical depiction of an England teetering on the edge of chaos between gay repression and totalitarianism. The Last of England is a vibrant collage of footage from different sources: home movies made by Jarman’s father and grandfather that hark back to the past and contemporary recordings of urban decadence in a post-industrial dystopia of sorts, plagued by the social unrest and protests associated with Thatcherism. Jarman, who had been diagnosed as HIV-positive at the time the film was made, exudes rage and desperation in what is quite possibly his most radical film, while Tilda Swinton gives a memorable performance as a Dervish whirling madly. Yet it is impossible to ascribe a plot or argument to The Last of England. What Jarman delivers us is a visual poem wrapped in multiple layers and references, from Caravaggio to Greek tragedy, not forgetting T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land; a complex filigree of associations that appeal to the spectator, politically, aesthetically and spiritually.

The Garden (1990)
Director: Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman is indubitably one of Europe’s boldest, most controversial filmmakers of recent times, as illustrated by The Garden. Shot in multiple formats, from video to 8mm, the film consists of a non-sequential series of images whose lyrical composition appeals to each and every one of the senses. This very personal interpretation of the Passion of Christ equates his betrayal and suffering with the ordeals endured by a gay couple. A languid, almost ethereal Tilda Swinton is perfectly at home in this dreamlike, timeless universe, where Jarman invites us to join him on an irreverent, unforgettable journey of visions, sex, sadism and religion that leads straight to hell.

Edward II (1991)
Director: Derek Jarman

Inspired by the homonymous late-16th-century Christopher Marlowe play and Jarman’s unbridled imagination, this sumptuous, timeless tale is about King Edward II, who fell out of favor with his court, his army and Queen Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton) when his gay relationship with Piers Gaveston, a man without claim to any noble title, was exposed. The action oscillates between the Elizabethan period and the 20th century, while the film is explicit and provocative in its treatment of homosexuality, condemning the persecution gay people have historically suffered. Porcelain-skinned actors fill the screen with boundless energy as they machinate in a tragic world without heroes or glory, where even the king will end up getting blood on his hands. Tilda Swinton plays a queen driven by deep-seated hate and bitterness who rules with an iron fist. Visual anachronisms, modern garb and gay activists confronting the police suggest connections between homophobic attitudes of the past and present at a time when the LGBTI community is claiming its political rights.

Orlando (1992)
Directora: Sally Potter

Orlando is a man or maybe a woman (Tilda Swinton) who swims against the tide from a baroque 17th to a more modern 20th-century England in search of his/her identity. Born at a time when it was as normal for royals to wear earrings, high heels and skirts as it was for them to unsheathe their swords and challenge their enemies to a duel, Orlando traverses the centuries as Sir or Lady, trying to find him/herself through poetry, politics and, of course, love. Maternity, birthrights in a male-oriented society, freedom of spirit, life, death and other such issues that define us as human beings over and above the traditional male-female mindset are all addressed in this beautiful film based on the homonymous novella by the revolutionary Virginia Woolf. As in the novel, form is just as, if not more, important than substance, hence the exquisite artwork and impeccable photography that conspire to create the emotive atmospheres we see in this very modern film of which Tilda Swinton is the indisputable star.

Love is the Devil: Study for A Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998)
Director: John Maybury

If we adhere to the truism that every work of art is a reflection of the artist’s essence, then Francis Bacon was a tormented man who saw his fellow man as nothing but bloody lumps of meat destined to decay until nothing was left of them. Yet even in horror and pain there is beauty. Bacon was haunted by demons, the desire to self-destruct and the macabre impulse to drag those close to him into this downward spiral with him. Perhaps this explains why he so obsessively sought out love and affection, even in the knowledge that routine would be the death of him, and that, once cut, every flower withers and dies. Every brushstroke of Bacon’s works (which fetch among the highest prices in the world) reveal his charisma; every portrait bears the scars, the weight of the past, the horror and the inseparability of love, desire and death. The same can be said of Love is the Devil: more than a film, it is an artistic experience that contorts its characters for purposes of translating Bacon’s work to the big screen and in so doing, we get a glimpse of Bacon himself—an angst-ridden homosexual artist who sees life as a meaningless passage though a world at once ephemeral and eternal, and who clings to contradiction and chaos as his only means of survival. By the way, Tilda Swinton fans might have a hard time spotting her among the gallery of deformed characters that parade across the screen.

The Man From London (2007)
Directors: Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky

Béla Tarr is one of the most important things to happen to film in the last 30 years and if you are new to his universe, The Man from London is the best place to start. A colorless, muddy landscape covered in buildings eroded by the rain make for the perfect picture-postcard of the end of time, but this poetic image never stands alone; it always transforms into that of a solitary man who stares out at this nothingness through his window, waiting for something to happen, waiting for a promise or perhaps a hope to be realized. This image is the theme of The Man from London, arguably Tarr’s most contemplative film, which is based on the eponymous Simenon novel. This happy meeting between Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Dostoyevsky’s "Crime and Punishment" births what could be summed up by the Nietzsche aphorism: “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

Michael Clayton (2007)
Director: Tony Gilroy

Tony Gilroy made his directing debut with this compelling legal thriller that won Tilda Swinton an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Michael Clayton (George Clooney) works for one of the world’s most prestigious law firms, except he is not a litigator, but a fixer who does his clients’ dirty work and takes care of compromising situations. As it turns out, his good friend and mentor is being watched by the firm because rumor has it he plans to turn on a major client—U North, which makes a chemical with known health risks. Karen Crowder is the face of U North. Recently promoted, this ruthless, unscrupulous woman will do whatever it takes to hold on to her position and continue climbing the corporate ladder. A critically acclaimed film that got seven Oscar nominations.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Director: Jim Jarmusch

Tilda Swinton’s pale complexion and languidness lend her an almost ethereal quality that make her perfect for the part of Eve, the 21st-century vampire she plays so masterfully and who lives out her immortality in the company of Adam, her one and only true love. But times have changed and vampires can’t go around biting just anyone for fear of being contaminated by the pesticides, chemicals and antibiotics in our food and water, so they have had to adapt by stealing pure samples from clinical labs. Jarmusch puts his indisputably unique mark on this blood-sucking pair, for Adam is tormented by what the “zombies” have done to the world, while Eve, older, wiser, calmer and decidedly more collected, finds meaning only in the artistic creations of the same men she avoids, but loves as much as her darling Adam. As they flit between a deserted Detroit in the full throes of an economic, social and spiritual depression and a labyrinthine Tangier, we join them on an ethical and aesthetic journey that leaves us asking the bittersweet question: is it only lovers or love that is left?

The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger (2016)
Directors: Tilda Swinton, Bartek Dziadosz, Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth

John Berger (1920–2017) was one of the most emblematic writers, critics and thinkers of 20th-century Britain. In 1973, this self-declared Marxist retired to a small town in the Alps. Here, a few months before his death, Tilda Swinton and some other close friends came to visit him. The result is this intimate documentary that takes place in “four acts”, mirroring the seasonal changes of the French landscape. Family, art, politics and life itself are just a few of the topics this magnetic storyteller, as Berger liked to call himself, discusses with his guests. In this touching tribute, word and image take on equal importance in describing an exceptional man who left his mark on several generations, including that of Tilda Swinton, his friend and accomplice of 20 years.

Derek (2008)
Directors: Isaac Julien, Bernard Rose

A film which involves courageous and innovative artists in an enlightening journey through the work and lasting influence of filmmaker Derek Jarman, friend of Tilda Swinton, with whom the actress struck a long collaboration.