A Cyborg Sent to Conquer the Screen: Tilda Swinton

To commemorate Tilda Swinton’s birthday, here is R. Kurt Osenlund’s tribute to the incomparable actress, originally published August 26 2011. Also read her interview reflecting on her work with Derek Jarman.

Tilda Swinton(s) in Teknolust

With her rigorous approach to her craft, you’d be forgiven for thinking Tilda Swinton was part machine. Hardwired into her uncannily gifted performances is a staunch discrimination in selecting projects. Save the occasional detour into Narnia, her career adheres to the outré, noticeably void of any commercial work. Cinephiles idolize her as the alt-Meryl Streep – at once chameleonic and unmistakable, yet committed to collaboration with the boldest of auteurs. And then there’s her appearance. Her much-noted androgyny, wrinkle-free skin (that belies her 50 years of age) and distinctly angular bone structure combine for an outer space look that a gal like Lady Gaga can only hope to mimic with facial prosthetics. Her range is as wide as her craft is effortless: exotic, comedic, alcoholic, gender-nonspecific; she wows in all these roles.

To this end, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Teknolust may be the definitive Swinton film. A heady feminist comedy with its director’s trademark blend of biology and technology, it features Swinton in four roles: mousy scientist Rosetta Stone and her three Self Replicating Automotons (SRAs) – cyborgian, DNA-derived clones who live out Stone’s repressed wants, personifying the movie’s blurred line between the physical and the intangible. While Hershman Leeson stirs in plenty of her own themes and metaphors (some boldfaced, others bafflingly elusive), one could very easily view Teknolust as a metaphor for Swinton’s career. Boasting a literal depiction of the Swinton-as-cyborg theory, it also offers a self-reflexive display of an actor’s relationship to her characters (her colorful extensions of self), and an overarching expression of Swinton’s formidable star persona.

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The imagery and dialogue in particular draw these biographical parallels. Stone views her doppelgängers – the color-coded Ruby, Olive and Marinne – virtually via screens on her computer and microwave. At one point the clones even entertain Stone with a collaborative techno dance performance. It’s all a giddy, hyper-real glimpse at how Swinton might watch her own work – or at least how Hershman Leeson imagines how Swinton might watch her own work. The director and star had already collaborated on the similarly-themed Conceiving Ada (and would later team up again on the genre-bending doc Strange Culture), so it’s safe to assume that Hershman Leeson penned Teknolust with Swinton in mind.

“Substitutes are never as good as the original,” a character says to Stone, “except in your case.” The greatest joke of the film is that Swinton is playing multiple, inauthentic automatons yet there’s a plain and certain humanity in each performance. This is not to say, necessarily, that Swinton’s work here is on a par with what she delivers in Julia or The Deep End, but into each archetypal SRA – the aloof seductress (Ruby), the wispy innocent (Olive) and the rebellious redhead (Marinne) – Swinton injects a personality indicative of a whole, plausible life, however fundamentally contrived that life might be.

Swinton’s feat, however, may go unnoticed given the airy, offbeat and borderline absurdist tone of the material. And, since her four characters occupy a lean feature length of 82 minutes, Swinton isn’t given a whole lot of screen time to distinctively animate each one. If there must be a singling out of the most substantively shorthanded character, surely it’s Stone, the meek human. Which is not a negation of Swinton’s ability to convey humanity, but rather a confirmation that she truly excels at transcending it. Her performance style shows both sensitivity and superiority (‘more human than human,’ as Philip K. Dick might put it), and is present in each of her films, in each extension of herself. “I like to dress up like this,” Marinne says after a wardrobe change. “It’s like a role in a movie. It’s more interesting than being myself all the time.” Among other things, Teknolust is a cyber-comic depiction of Swinton’s own self-reflection as an actress, as well as an extension of her persona via a bevy of beautiful cyborgs.

The most persuasive and powerful of the SRAs is Ruby, who bewitches men in order to harvest their life-sustaining sperm (thus spreading Hershman Leeson’s mysterious feminist virus, which crashes men’s hard drives, both electronically and anatomically). On her web site, Ruby coos to prospective Johns, teasing her special brand of stimulation. “Think of me as your second nature,” she says. “Spirit. Flesh. Soul. Icon.” It’s a mantra the preternatural Swinton recites well to her own enamored audience.


R. Kurt Osenlund
is a freelance journalist and film critic. He contributes to
South Philly Review and ICON Magazine and reviews films on his blog

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