Can a Child Bully a Parent?
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
We need to talk about Tilda Swinton. I think when she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Michael Clayton, a conversation began. We began to consider her particular brand of genius as a form that we could no longer ignore. And I don’t mean to use that word “genius” as lightly as we tend to in cultural debate. What Swinton does is genius because it is not driven by style or method or a concern for theatric — she simply and purely aims to find what makes her character and the stories they inhabit tick.
There is something attractive in her odd androgyny. Her angular features and her long lean figure cut every single frame and each piece of what is left has some elemental essence of Tilda Swintonness that is distinct from what the conventional beauties leave us. The beauties, the stars, if that is what we must call them, are always just themselves, but Swinton is a character, a presence, and something else – truly herself, which is hard to define, but still unique.
In Lynne Ramsey’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, as Eva Khatchadourian, the mother of a child (played by three young actors, but most impressively by Ezra Miller, the eldest of the three who captures the dark heart of a teen about to go off the reservation and the ethereal connection with Swinton as if he actually sprang, fully formed, from her head) who grows into a disturbed school shooter, Swinton embodies the existential angst of a woman who never imagined herself a mother or a wife, and who knows, as her child grows, that even he realizes that she’s not equipped to be a parent, so he begins to pick at her inadequacies, her essential lack of maternal instincts. In effect, Kevin bullies his mother and Swinton allows us a window into the soul of a victim who never dreamed of victimhood in this way. She was supposed to be a hip independent woman of means -artistic and smart, smart enough to avoid falling into the trap of motherhood. She was supposed to be Tilda Swinton.
So, it is not Kevin that we need to talk about. No, we need to address Tilda Swinton, who is a mother, but one who lives in an experimental and unorthodox family unit with her lover and the father of her twins. I tend to avoid drawing a performer’s personal life into critical evaluations of their work, but in this case, I feel justified because we are talking about Tilda’s Swintonness, right?
She is Orlando, the nobleman in Sally Potter’s adaptation of the Virginia Woolf story, who over the course of centuries becomes a modern woman and Margaret Hall (The Deep End), harried mother seeking to protect her son from blackmailers and killers and she is the White Witch from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. She is Emma Recchi (I Am Love), the woman who marries into an Italian dynasty and chaffs under the restraints of family and duty. And she is each and every other character she has played, large and small. In fact, these characters become larger when imbued with her generous spirit. That is what daringly likeminded directors must be undeniably drawn to when they cast her.
Swinton is the epitome, the very definition of what we mean when we talk about the “alternative” and yet she makes it familiar thanks to her willingness to allow us to see the vulnerability at the core of her otherness, which is what takes the edge off the off-putting conversation about Kevin, and what the story implies about our children.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com