I must say that the most exciting thing about today’s National Board of Review announcement for me was the Best Actress honor for Tilda Swinton. Firstly, it’s refreshing when these groups shake things up a bit and keep the competition going. But more than that, I think Swinton is one of those actresses who enrich just about every conversation, Oscar season or otherwise. Her strength isn’t simply that she’s an extraordinarily talented actress, but that she chooses projects and collaborations that dare to enrich and extend art and cinema as a whole. Too many of the leading female performances raved about this awards cycle are in safe and uninteresting movies, which is never a problem for a Swinton picture.
But enough general gushing. Let’s go back to an early point in Swinton’s career, one of her very first film roles. A year after appearing in Caravaggio, her first collaboration with Derek Jarman, the director asked her to star in his contribution to 1987′s Aria (which I covered earlier this week, as a tribute to Ken Russell). The music is the famous Depuis le jour from Gustave Charpentier’s Louise, a sweet ode to young love. It’s a gorgeously simple short from the often provocative director, as earnest in its beauty as the music itself.
An old woman stands in period costume, taking her final bow as a great operatic star. Yet in this moment of joy she reflects. Jerman intercuts 8mm videos of an early romance, Swinton as the effervescent and now faint memory of a long-ago young girl in love. The aria plays over it all, Leontyne Price sweetly warbling in youthful exaltation. “Et je tremble délicieusement/Au souvenir charmant/Du premier jour D’amour!” – “And I tremble deliciously/at the delightful memory/of the first day of love!” As the melody twirls along the young lovers gradually move from black and white to color, transporting us to a seaside romance that sparkles in the past.
In December of 1986 Jarman tested positive for HIV, and this short is the first project he took on after his diagnosis. It has therefore been said that Depuis le jour is a farewell to cinema. I think that’s a bit of an overstatement, but this can definitely be seen as a transitional moment in his oeuvre. There’s an empathetic understanding of mortality in this quietly profound musical piece, a balance between loss and the persistence of memory that puts everything into perspective. Certainly derived from deep and personal reflection on the part of its director, it’s a meditative and almost ethereal work of art.
It’s also the second, and first significant collaboration between Jarman and Swinton. From this short until the director’s death in 1994, Swinton was cast in every single one of his films. A bittersweet combination, the beginning of a grand partnership and the beginning of the end for an extraordinary life in the cinema, Depuis le jour is absolutely worth your time.