Alleged alien Tilda Swinton tries her best to bring the films of Luca Guadagnino down to earth

Screenshot: A Bigger Splash, Photo: Suspiria (Alessio Bolzoni/Amazon Studios), I Am Love (Magnolia Pictures.), Graphic: Allison Corr

Because of her reputation as a shapeshifting oddball, Tilda Swinton has become a go-to fantasy casting choice for David Bowie. Yet when Swinton does play a (fictional) rock star in Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash, Guadagnino makes the strategic choice to give her minimal lines of full-volume dialogue. Her Marianne Lane, who’s glimpsed wearing some Bowie-ish makeup at a concert but sounds a little more like Patti Smith, has been rendered temporarily mute by a throat treatment. Beyond a handful of brief flashbacks, her voice rarely rises above the occasional whisper, contrasted with her producer ex-boyfriend Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a compulsive yammerer.

It’s not unusual for Swinton to rely more on the subtleties of her facial expressions and body language than her dialogue, but in her four movies with Guadagnino, her most frequent collaborator apart from experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman, she’s consistently more grounded than her outré image would suggest. Yes, Swinton—who swans through Narnia as the White Witch, through Moonrise Kingdom embodying a woman known only as Social Services, through the gigantic train in Snowpiercer wearing outlandish eyewear and an imperious attitude—also serves as Guadagnino’s anchor. Even when she appears to be indulging herself and/or her director with a potentially gimmicky performance, as in their new remake of Suspiria, she tends to be one of the less strange people on screen.

If Swinton is thought of (fairly or not) as one of cinema’s premier weirdos, Guadagnino has a reputation as a stylist who really knows how to luxuriate in a story’s atmosphere and emotions. This isn’t untrue, especially in Call Me By Your Name (his only recent feature without Swinton), but he’s also weirdly antsy, with an array of fussy directorial tics that don’t always cohere into a satisfying whole. In I Am Love, his second film with Swinton, he often captures simple actions or conversations from multiple angles, even cutting across the 180-degree line with disorienting frequency. This is particularly true during the opening half-hour or so, before it’s fully clear that Swinton’s Emma is the lead character in the story.

Emma is a Russian woman who’s married into a wealthy Italian family, and the movie opens with a big family gathering announcing that Emma’s husband and son have been appointed successors to the family business. The awkward flow of these events and information does serve Swinton’s character, allowing her to dart in and out of the audience’s sight even when she’s not moving. Here, as with just about all of their work together, it’s difficult to tell whether Swinton is grounding Guadagnino’s fidgets to create a meaningful tension between director and subject, or if she’s simply emboldening his worst habits by remaining so quietly expressive.

A key scene takes place about halfway through the film, when Emma visits a farm where a chef friend of her son (and object of her desire) gets his vegetables. Emma exits a car and looks around before the man approaches and kisses her. That action happens close up but completely out of focus. Before that moment, both Swinton and Guadagnino are appearing to do very little; she’s watching her surroundings, part of her face hidden with sunglasses, and the director is observing her, not doing anything fancy with the camera. But if Guadagnino is aiming to capture sensuousness, he and Swinton convey the reverie perfectly, a kind of trance amidst his stylistic maximalism.

Elsewhere in the film, the directing intrudes more. There’s a sex-in-the-grass scene, complete with frenzied score and close-ups of leaves, bugs, and abstracted nudity. And in general, I Am Love oscillates between careful character study and overblown melodrama, Swinton representing the former and her director pushing for the latter. The erratic style feels more modulated, and more productive, in A Bigger Splash, when there is a clear quartet of main characters that are repeatedly paired off for various contrasts.

Guadagnino again ties Swinton’s character up in knotty desires, this time for her mouthy ex (Fiennes), who’s determined to win her back from her more stable (but recovering-addict) beau, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), who flirts with Harry’s possible daughter, Pen (Dakota Johnson). Here Guadagnino’s restless camera seems more in sync with the manic energy of Fiennes’ Harry, which also places it in direct conflict with Swinton’s Marianne. When Swinton is in his sights, Guadagnino is more likely to settle down, as in a lingering two-shot of Marianne and Harry confronting each other on a small Italian street before she storms off. Swinton’s affection, patience, frustration, and anger effectively portrays the entire Marianne/Harry relationship in miniature, more clearly and succinctly than several of the movie’s brief flashbacks to when they were together.

It’s hard to subdue an actor more than removing their power of speech, but in some ways, Suspiria does the trick even as it indulges itself. On paper, Swinton’s work in the horror remake seems like a tour-de-force of ostentatious weirdness. She looks like herself as Madame Blanc, an instructor at a prestigious dance school-slash-coven, but she’s also covered in makeup to play Josef Klemperer, a guilt-ridden psychiatrist investigating the disappearance of one of his patients; and covered in even more makeup to play Helena Markos, a withered crone who the witches want to transfer into a younger dancer’s body. So many actors would, understandably, use old-man or elderly-witch guises as an excuse to ham shamelessly. Swinton, though, plays Josef as soft-spoken and internal, someone whose curiosity and guilt are both being drawn out of him slowly but surely. Markos is more outwardly garish, but even then, the emphasis is on that grotesque makeup job, under which Swinton’s more subtle mannerisms are still sometimes visible.

With the exception of some of the bendy, writhing dances (which Madame Blanc often observes from some distance), it’s not the performances that go wild in Suspiria; for all of the movie’s frights and sights, no one is really wilding out on the level of Fiennes in Bigger Splash. The movie lets Guadagnino pop off in his staging, with those orgiastic dance routines (and dance/mutilation hybrids) as well as sudden throat-slittings and voyeuristic unease, while his actors remain relatively subdued. Swinton’s interpretation of Madame Blanc is both more menacing in theory, as Guadagnino tips his hand about a coven of witches running the dance school almost immediately, and more shaded in practice, as she navigates the politics of coven management and takes what feels like a motherly interest in supposed ingénue Susie (Dakota Johnson, who has now twice played a character whose youth both beguiles and vexes Swinton). Josef, meanwhile, has a heartbreaking backstory heavy with guilt. But both characters’ big moments wind up feeling more theoretical than emotionally expressive because Guadagnino mutes his actors to the point of inscrutability. The movie roils too much for Swinton to truly anchor it.

Suspiria’s placement of naturalistic performances within an overflowing grab bag of ideas actually recalls Swinton and Guadagnino’s first film together. The Protagonists wasn’t ever commercially released in the U.S., and it’s easy enough to understand why. It’s a student-filmish, self-conscious, fast-cut sorta-documentary that clearly considers itself something loftier and more evocative as it addresses a notorious real-life London murder case. In 1994, Mohamed el-Sayed was slain in his car by two young men who set out to kill a stranger, and The Protagonists takes another look at the case four years later, well after the murderers had been apprehended, tried, and convicted. A pre-fame Swinton, then, is playing herself—not identified directly as such, but referred to in passing by her real name as she plays the bizarre role of a well-studied cub reporter, talking to real-life figures from the case, as well as to her cameraman and other cohorts. At one point, she conducts a street interview with the cops who got the murderers’ confession, and the camera drifts away, taking in the surroundings as Swinton makes unguarded small talk about how this interview compares to others they’ve had about this case.

Swinton is relaxed and outgoing here; it may be her chattiest performance for Guadagnino, if it’s accurate to call it a performance at all. It’s hard to tell because she carries little affectation, but also little visible inner life. The movie seems to want to comment on the banality of this terrible act—at one point, Swinton speaks to the camera while posed like the victim’s body, covered in fake blood (“way too much blood, way too theatrical”), musing that “a lot more people stopped to watch us filming this than noticed Mohamed in the car that night.” That is to say, The Protagonists itself is pretty banal, and never really explains why Swinton and her crew often appear... well, if not giddy, at least weirdly amped by this amateur investigation (into a case that’s been closed) slash acting exercise (in the form of an eventual dramatization of the murder). The whole movie is uncomfortably pleased with its speculative gratuitousness, and that’s clear even before Guadagnino adds a full-on strip routine to his dramatic re-enactment of the night in question.

Suspiria (2018)
Suspiria (2018)
Photo: Amazon Studios

This early in their collaboration, Swinton can’t ground Guadagnino’s worst ideas, no matter how many times she stares straight into the camera or performs her host role with what seems like genuine interest. The dynamic isn’t miles removed from their work together in Suspiria, even as Swinton has grown in stature as a performer and Guadagnino has outgrown his dumbest impulses. Suspiria is a much better movie, of course, but like The Protagonists, it often winds up working against the people actually appearing on camera, almost too confident in the actors’ ability to turn a thought experiment into something more human.

As good as Swinton can be in Guadagnino’s films, her work in them is perhaps stronger collectively than individually. Though played with restraint, her characters become increasingly unmoored from domestic life—which is to say, from traditional roles offered to a fiftysomething woman in mainstream movies—as the films go on. She moves from dutiful wife and mother having an affair in middle age in I Am Love, to rock star with a romantic partner and no kids in A Bigger Splash (though, as Dakota Johnson’s character observes, she’s “pretty domesticated for a rock star”), to finally, three different characters in Suspiria, all decidedly unpartnered and, in the case of Blanc and Markos, decidedly unconventional.

Again, Swinton is no stranger to unconventional roles. But her progression through Guadagnino’s filmography still feels like a rebuke to the expectations imposed on middle-aged women. Traditional acting showcases tend to let the performers emote and showboat while the filmmakers stand back and capture it, so it’s also novel to see Guadagnino showboat while Swinton keeps her cool. Her absence from Call Me By Your Name, his best movie so far, is noticeable. In context of their other work together, it also makes sense. Even with the emotional turmoil of young love, Call Me is easily Guadagnino’s most serene, most controlled, and least dangerous movie—the only one without some kind of body count. It doesn’t need Swinton’s steadiness in the face of stylistic fussiness and possible melodramatic collapse, because the movie never really threatens to fly off the rails. In their films together, Swinton still can’t prevent every rail-jump; Guadagnino doesn’t always fully utilize that steadiness she can provide. But it’s good to know she’s there to try.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. I also write fiction, edit textbooks, and help run, a pop culture blog and podcast. Star Wars prequels forever!