- 14 Apr 10
Longtime arthouse darling and aristo scion Tilda Swinton turns out to be an old democratic socialist at heart, abeit one who laments the passing of cinematic melodrama.
I Am Love director Luca Guadagnino bursts through the door of the hotel suite where I’m sitting with Tilda Swinton and the duo - old collaborators and even older friends; “a match made in arthouse heaven” as a recent headline in The Guardian has it - erupt into a swirl of ideas and giggles. Staring out the window of the Merrion Hotel only serves to seal the deal.
“That does it”, Tilda announces. “We have to make a film here.”
She speaks, as ever, with beautiful cut glass vowels and the sort of authority one expects to find at boot camp; an erect carriage exaggerated by a shock of cropped red hair and her imposing height completes the effect. It’s easy to see why she has so frequently described herself as a ‘soldier’ and she hails from a long line of same; her Scottish dad is Major-General Sir John Swinton of Kimmerghame, Berwickshire and the Anglo-Scots clan’s lineage can be traced to the 9th century. In the royal scheme of things, the Swintons are at least twice as grand as Tilda’s old West Heath school chum Diana Spenser, or the lately arrived Germans that make up the House of Windsor.
For Tilda Swinton, this aristocratic legacy seems to count for as much as it might with Eamonn McCann. At Cambridge University she quickly ditched her ambitions to be a poet in favour of political science and the Communist Party. She remains a dedicated democratic socialist.
“It’s commonsense,” she cries. “It seems to me that capitalism is an anti-human mechanism. That it does not and cannot work for the human spirit. It can only create an obstacle to happiness. It can only suppress, because it’s about denial and dishonesty. You can’t get rich without exploiting others. And that wealth has be to continued and protected and sustained and that can only happen through corruption on an even grander scale.”
Her political leanings are a logical extension of her irresistible rebelliousness. Her uncommon domestic arrangements with the artists John Byrne and Sandro Kopp are a constant source of bemusement to the tabloid press, though all parties are, as she puts it, “happy to get on with it” and remain dedicated to raising her twin son and daughter.
As an actress, she is repeatedly cited as the greatest of her generation and has seduced mainstream audiences with sterling performances in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Burn After Reading and Michael Clayton, for which she received an Oscar. Her onscreen intensity seems to breathe the same fire as Daniel Day Lewis’ Method, though the pair couldn’t differ more in their respective approaches to their craft.
“I have absolutely no method whatsoever,” she says. “It’s dress up and play as far as I’m concerned. It’s about as sophisticated and in many ways less sophisticated than the effort that goes into my children’s school plays. Acting is just nonsense really.”
It is, however, easier to think of her as an artist rather than an actor. For nine years she was the late Derek Jarman’s closest collaborator; she proudly resists use of the word ‘muse’ to describe their relationship.
“I don’t like it,” she says. “It is a useful term for describing a very close working relationship but it’s not an accurate one to my mind. I just think it makes me sound passive. And it also implies a kind of numbness in the artist. Derek Jarman needed no muse but himself. And he was my muse in a way. He inspired so much in me. I greatly prefer the term avatar. I think that’s much closer to the truth.”
She has since found other able co-conspirators in Sally Potter (Orlando), Orbital, Viktor & Rolf, and Cornelia Parker who worked on the headline grabbing installation that featured Ms. Swinton asleep in a glass box for a week at London’s Serpentine Gallery.
She even has her own film festival; the Ballerina Ballroom Cinema Of Dreams takes place every August in the Scottish Highlands.
“The heading over the title is Ramshackle Rocks,” she tells me. “And last year, when we made the festival mobile we called it Ramshackle Rolls. I rented out this old hall, which I soon discovered, had a whole previous life as the Ballerina Hall. So all these old ladies started turning up with stories about going to the old ballroom when they were sixteen. We sell homemade buns. It’s very thrown together.”
She thinks, moreover, like an artist. When I ask her about the traditional casting for women with red hair – Jessica Rabbit femme versus Lucille Ball kook – she answers as an aesthete.
“That is true but not if you are working for Powell and Pressberger,” she notes. “What I think is that redheads should beat a path toward fine art where they have always been appreciated. Fine artists who are working within cinema love a redhead and know what to do with her. We probably make better oil canvases - particularly around the time Titian started mixing red pigment with orpiment and realgar - but red hair isn’t necessarily as cinematic as it is painterly. The filmmaker needs to know their stuff. They need to know what to do with us.”
Her latest mission is the rehabilitation of the old school woman’s picture, a genre which has sank into sad decline in an age of identikit rom-coms, daily soap operas and the Hallmark channel.
“I’m as baffled as you are by its mysterious disappearance,” she says. “It seems ridiculous that the words ‘melodrama’ and ‘melodramatic’ are derogatory terms. The whole concept of melodrama has been really denigrated by the idea of television. I think it’s a technical thing to do with the smallness of the frame. If you take melodrama and make it the preserve of television, the preserve of soap opera, you make it all about the close up. You have a grand scene with someone descending a staircase and it has to be clipped to fit a frame so you end up with facial shots all the time. There’s no context left. And sadly this has infected cinema. There’s far too much talking and far too many close ups. So Luca and I, when we were working out this film, became determined that would celebrate the emotional, the operatic, the sensational.”
To that end I am Love presents an upper class Milanese family in dramatic crisis. Behind the swagger of the patriarchs - Edoardo Sr (Gabriele Ferzetti) has just passed the business on to his son, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), and grandson Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) – the women are much less sure of themselves. Most significantly, Tancredi’s wife, a Russian émigré (Tilda Swinton), finds herself drawn to a chef (Edoardo Gabbriellini) of her son’s acquaintance.
“Luca and I have been tossing this around for 11 years,” says Ms. Swinton. “We had very definite ambitions. We wanted to reclaim that long shot, to reclaim that thing that Hitchcock talks about: to let the camera tell the story. Atmosphere should do just as much work as dialogue. But it’s also about everything that informs the relationship between Luca and myself. It has a political perspective but it also has a very personal perspective. We wanted to make a film about the revolution of love in a woman of my age.”
Ms. Swinton’s character could not, one feels, be more different from the woman playing her.
“My reading of that character is that she doesn’t even have anything to button up,” says the actress. “She’s come from one prescribed society into another. When she’s awakened it is for the first time. Kicking her into some kind of authenticity. She doesn’t even use her own name. She’s like an avatar really. She’s even named after a submerged Russian village because her nature is submerged. But once you reach the point when your children are the age you were when you had them, your mother life is coming to an end. And opportunities can present themselves.”
“Exactly,” she says. “Though as the film has it, real love has nothing to do with the idea of romance we’ve all been asked to swallow. Real love is not about oneness. It’s disturbing and unbalanced. It’s lonely. You won’t find any scented candles or chocolates in our film.”
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