On DVD: Catching Up With Tilda Swinton, the Queen of Weird

New to DVD: Sally Potter's 1993 metamovie Orlando, from which sprang (for most of us, anyway) the unearthly miracle of Tilda Swinton. Adapting an unadaptable Virginia Woolf novel -- a "biography" of a young nobleman who lives for hundreds of years and switches his sex somewhere in the middle -- Potter exploits Swinton's uniquely beautiful oddness. At first in drag, Swinton is less a convincing boy than an undeniably charming androgyne, all moonish eyes and alabaster skin, but after the hero changes to heroine ("Same person, no difference at all -- just a different sex," she says, turning naked toward a full-length mirror), we still haven't seen anything quite like her before. Orlando is a wry, feminist anthem-movie, but it's far from the only DVD-rentable freak on Swinton's pre-Oscar resume...

Caravaggio (1986)

This arthouse hit put directer Derek Jarman on the map because it framed classical art history not as a matter of a lofty cultural past but of a chaotic, exuberant, erection-hard now. His cast (including Robbie Coltrane and Sean Bean) gesticulate and fume and pose like street performers, and the artificiality of every aspect of the film reverbs around the contrived fauxness of all art. It's also funny, and Swinton (as a whory urchin) is luscious.

The Last of England (1988)

Jarman again, but an unsettling non-narrative montage-attack on modern England and the Thatcher administration. Swinton shows up screaming.

Female Perversions (1996)

For better or worse, Susan Streitfeld's film is the only one of its kind: a feature fiction narrative based on a published volume of psychosocial lit crit (namely, Louise J. Kaplan's Female Perversions: The Temptations of Emma Bovary). Forget that, though, as Swinton plays a high-powered attorney bisexually navigating several affairs, including semi-graphically with Karen Sillas. Without real characters to play, just iconic stereotypes, the actresses don't get to really "act" so much as vamp, whine, pant and gorgeously fill up screen space, which Swinton does with campy confidence.

Love Is the Devil (1998)

John Maybury's pretentious movie largely wastes a hot topic: the sordid life of British painter/demimondaine Francis Bacon (Derek Jacobi), and his heartbroken lust for a boy toy (Daniel Craig, that's right, Daniel Craig). What's worse, Swinton is all but unrecognizable as a toothless tavern lush.

The War Zone (1999)

A brooding portrait of familial self-destruction that raises far more questions than it can possibly answer, Tim Roth's directorial debut is about the effects of father-daughter incest, with Swinton as the clueless mother with a new baby, honestly displaying her own 38-year-old, post-childbirth body.

The Deep End (2001)

In what might be her strangest role, Swinton is an ordinary bourgeosie mom covering up a murder she thinks her son committed. A remake of a great Joan Bennett movie from 1949, and gripping stuff.

Broken Flowers (2005)

Swinton is a rangy, scary white trash ex-girlfriend of Bill Murray, who's rummaging through his old liaisons investigating who might've born him a son without his knowledge, and boy, can Swinton do scary white trash. Directed by Jim Jarmusch. (See 2008's Julia for a full-on dose of Swinton's low-life American side.)

Also, coming to disc this fall from Microcinema, two obscure sci-fi/avant-garde features starring Swinton, Conceiving Ada (1997) and Teknolust (2002), both directed by Lynn Hershman-Leeson, and brimming with clones, androids and dykes. But more on those when the time is right.