What makes Tilda Swinton so unique?

July 7, 2022

Somewhere in my early high school years my classmates and I were instructed by our French teacher to read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s sweet little novella Le Petit Prince. For those unfamiliar to the book: the story follows a young prince who visits various planets in space, including Earth, and addresses themes of loneliness, friendship, love, and loss. On this interplanetary adventure he encounters a geographer who, after some insisting, tells him the definition of the French word ‘éphemere’ or, as the English would say, ‘ephemeral’. “It means,” says the geographer ‘that which is in danger of speedy disappearance.’” We would call it ‘fleeting’.

Ever since reading these passages at an early age ‘ephemere’ has remained my favourite word in the French vocabulary. It’s certainly a term that comes to mind when discussing the renaissance woman and idiosyncratic chameleon we will be talking about today, Tilda Swinton. The London-born actress returns in Joanna Hogg’s once again highly autobiographical sequel to her 2019 film The Souvenir as the mother of protagonist Julie, a struggling student filmmaker. Hogg’s shimmering story of first love (mostly depicted in Part I) and the struggles with a young woman’s formative years, is a portrait of the artist that transcends the halting particulars of everyday life — a singular mix of memoir and fantasy.

In it Swinton plays a woman somewhat years her senior, once again transforming into a character she is not, but surely seems to know quite well. That Julie is portrayed by her real life daughter Honor Swinton Byrne certainly helps.

What is it with Tilda Swinton? She has, to stay with the French vernacular, a certain je ne sais quoi. An ungraspable aura that lends itself to an almost bizarre variety of roles and performances. From her early works with friend and fellow artist Derek Jarman (Caravaggio, Wittgenstein and the amazing Blue) to collaborations with Sally Potter (Orlando), Spike Jonze (Adaptation), The Coen Bros. (Burn After Reading), David Fincher (The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button), Luca Guadagnino (Io Sono L’Amore, A Bigger Splash, Suspiria), Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom), Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer), Lynne Ramsay (We Need To Talk About Kevin), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Memoria), the list goes on. Summing up her palmares one would think her focus lies mainly in the artistic, but let’s not forget she popped up in both the Narnia and Marvel universes… Few actors can navigate the balance between high and low brow, between light and heavy, Hollywood and arthouse, without ever being pigeonholed, as Swinton has been doing for almost fifty years.

So the question arises, what makes her so unique? What makes her stand out? And why, like the rose the Little Prince desperately wants to protect de Saint-Exupéry’s novel, does she seem so ‘éphemere’?

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