Men. Women. A man who transforms into a woman across several centuries. A bi-millennial vampire drained of inspiration. A cryogenic company CEO in the year 2151. A crime-covering mother. A conniving lawyer. The White Witch. A balleticwitch. Gabriel the Archangel. The Ancient One. Social Services. Twin sisters. Amy Schumer’s boss.
Since 1986, Tilda Swinton’s unparalleled eclecticism has enlivened stories about drinkers, sailors, soldiers, spies and so much more. This month, Midwest Film Journal staffers and contributors look back at the wild, weird and wonderful ways this Oscar-winning actress and international treasure keeps it going Tilda Break of Dawn.
Luca Guadagnino’s lusty explorations of desire may be best known through Call Me by Your Name, but they wouldn’t exist without Tilda Swinton. In what is shaping up to be one of the greatest actor / director pairings of our time, the two have already made four features together, including the wildly melodramatic launch of Guadagnino’s “Desire Trilogy” — I Am Love.
Seriously, if you think his later works are an enveloping mess of emotion but you haven’t seen his breakout, then you have no clue of Guadagnino’s capabilities. It’s probably a lesser film than Call Me by Your Name or Suspiria, it’s certainly less controlled and much more narratively padded, but it gives you a lot of what the Swinton / Guadagnino pairing does best — contrast Swinton’s remarkable stillness with Guadagnino’s lush style to bring a reserved character into the light.
Here, Swinton plays a Russian who married into a rich — and I mean RICH — Italian family and has spent decades assimilating into their world. She’s learned how to throw lavish parties and knows how to keep their palatial house running but has never been completely accepted — at once a beloved and ignored member of the family. She performs her duties with care and then fades into the background, a life she is not unhappy with but she finds is in stark contrast to the flourishing of her children. They are all young adults in that terribly exciting period of establishing their lives, and something about their excitement awakens her.
Doesn’t hurt that one of her son’s new friends is a hot, young chef, with whom she is instantly smitten. The real falling in love, though, doesn’t occur until she tastes his prawn in a luminous, swirling scene that is the best thing Swinton and Guadagnino have achieved together.
It is, per usual, a wordless effort from Swinton. All the acting is in her face, her eyes, her posture, while Guadagnino pulls the audience out of reality and into her experience. The lighting dims, the conversation fades, and we are with Swinton eating that lovingly made prawn — an undeniably decadent moment that makes even I, someone who hates shellfish, want that prawn.
Swinton understands here that Guadagnino will do the heavy lifting. She could make this work on her own — she has chewed scenery and made moments in many other films — but a restaurant is not a place where her character would be demonstrative, so she plays it small. The wildness of the moment is in her savoring and in Guadagnino’s bold break from reality, an interplay that makes it one of the best food moments ever put on film.
Of course, Guadagnino doesn’t always keep Swinton bottled up. He knows her range as well as anyone, so just a few scenes later we see her carry a key moment. Her character’s daughter is visiting with a tentative revelation that she’s fallen for another woman, and Swinton plays this scene with unadulterated joy. She had discovered the relationship earlier by accident, but now that her daughter is telling her, they can share the momentous event. She cannot tell her daughter of her own burgeoning love, but it’s a parallel Swinton and Guadagnino lay out carefully — connecting the two women in their change and their willingness to open themselves to the world outside the stuffy, old-fashioned environment of the very wealthy.
This push-pull between financial security and inner happiness is a key visual motif in I Am Love and, arguably, in Guadagnino’s entire “Desire Trilogy.” Some complain about all the rich people lounging around pools, but think about when these characters are most happy. Is it when they’re surrounded by their things or when they’re with the people they love?
I Am Love makes the answer abundantly clear in the way Swinton is shot in that cold, daunting house versus the visits to her paramour’s rural piece of land. The house is all gold and marble coldness, making Swinton’s pale skin dull in its reflection. It’s not until she steps outside at her lover’s place that we see her glow, pulling off her sweater to bask in the warm sunshine. It’s a moment that feels like taking a deep breath, and it’s one that only works because the director knows precisely what the actor brings to the table in a visual sense.
Sexy, sensual and deeply felt, I Am Love is the first time most people heard of Guadagnino, but it was far from the first time Swinton had pushed him to the fore. She starred in his debut feature in 1999, and they had worked on I Am Love for 11 years; she would get a producer credit, as she has with several of the oddball projects that she’s helped bring into existence. He didn’t need her name after this movie, but they continue to work together time and again, and I, for one, am delighted to receive anything these two make together.