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+ The Deep End review


“Forced to deal with veils and masks”


Tilda Swinton walks in wearing four inch black heels and a form-fitting red dress with the sleeves literally torn off, so a few threads stray across her shoulders. She’s in “femme drag,” she says. On her forearm she has a temporary tattoo, the Chinese symbol for “smile.” This she does, frequently. Tilda Swinton likes to talk, laugh, and make jokes about the strange and wonderful business she’s in. She’s a lot of fun.


Swinton’s first worked in movies with Derek Jarman; together they made eight films, including Caravaggio and Edward II. She also starred in Sally Potter’s Orlando, Lynn Hershberg’s Conceiving Ada, and Susan Streitfeld’s Female Perversions. Two years ago, she played Leonardo DiCaprio’s seducer in Danny Boyle’s The Beach, and now her new film, David Siegel and Scott McGehee’s The Deep End, takes her even deeper into “mainstream” territory. In it, she plays Margaret, a housewife and mother to three children, living on Lake Tahoe. Her Navy officer husband is away on a ship, when she finds a body just outside their house, in the lake. Unfortunately, it’s the body of her teenaged son’s older lover, a club owner with gangster connections. Though Margaret disposes of the body (in the lake), she is then approached by a blackmailer (Goran Visnjic), who threatens to expose her son’s homosexuality, with a sex-tape of him and the lover. He demands that she come up with $50,000. The movie is about her efforts to do that.


Swinton liked the part was pleased when Siegel and McGehee sent her the script, but, she observes, “The script is not the most important thing, not by a long shot.” However, when she met the directors, she says, “It was very clear that we were going to be able to go down a road together.” That “road” has turned out to include the film’s wide distribution by Fox Searchlight and Swinton’s stays in “grand hotel suites,” giving interviews around the world.



PopMatters:

You do many of your scenes in this film opposite that huge lake.



Tilda Swinton:

Yes. The lake is such an important character in the film. Not only literally in terms of the fact that Margaret has to interact with the lake a lot, and in a more upfront way than she does with almost anybody in the film, but also because it sets the environment. The idea of living near that lake is such a peculiar one. Because you’re constantly in touch with this sinister fact of the depth of it. Because you have the two facts, the mountains above it, and you can work out some kind of golden mean, that it’s probably as deep as high. But then you just have this stillness, and it you can’t get that stillness without that depth. That perfect surface tension is the operating metaphor for Margaret. Jacques Costeau went down to the bottom of that lake in one of his little modules and he came back ashen-faced, and said, “I’m not going back down there!” Because everyone’s down there in concrete shoes, you see, and perfectly preserved because it’s so cold. They’re just swaying about. Fredo’s there! Fredo from The Godfather.



PM:

It’s also a movie that expects viewers to keep up.



TS:

I’m delighted to see, in the audiences I’ve watched the film with so far, that what we hoped would happen does happen. Which is that, the moment she tries [Darby Reese’s car] door, that she’s going to have to go back and get the keys, or even before that, when she notices the car outside her house, with the “Deep End” number plate. It’s such a satisfying moment, to know that audiences want to be that bright, and want to be expected to be that bright, because they do think four shots ahead of the filmmakers. It’s the filmmakers’ duty to expect that of the audience, and to train them up in the beginning of the film. It’s like setting hares for a chase; it’s very exciting. Because the audience is Margaret. A guiding principle of film is that she’s simply what they call “an ordinary person,” thinking her way through this crisis. And the trick always was to get the pacing of it right. It’s a very precise, sort of forensic work, really, and not much to do with realism.



PM:

And still, while you’re with her, and anticipating what she’ll do, you’re not always sure what will happen next.



TS:

Yes, it’s playing with that noir tradition of the reverse and the next reverse, and on. One has to be careful with that, you can train the audience to expect too much of it and expect to be surprised, and then it’s not a surprise. It does have this nightmare quality, that’s in the Elizabeth Sanxay Holding novel [The Blank Wall]. She is the most astonishing writer, anyway, but this book is so tough, and radical and modern about being a mother. It’s just ruthless, and so unsentimental, and it was written in 1947. Margaret talks about how they never leave her alone, and she’s so angry about it. And the novel conveys this nightmare quality, which is not just that you turn the corner and your mother’s a monster, but that you turn another corner, and she’s turned back into your mother. So you’re constantly safe, then not so safe, then safe. It’s that surreality, that back and forth quality, that works well in this film. Margaret’s never safe, but she has to keep providing safety for others.



PM:

Can you talk more about the role of the mother in this film, and how it’s different from other representations?



TS:

I think it’s such an important thing to show mothers struggling! It’s such hard work, and there’s no mother that it’s not hard work for. I still can’t understand this conspiracy of silence about it: it’s a terrible thing. Women don’t talk about it, because there’s such an internalized oppression about it. So many men respond to this film by saying, “What an extraordinary woman!” A couple of women have said it to me, but no mothers. Because she’s a very ordinary mother who finds herself in the middle of the plot of a film noir. But that’s not very exotic, it’s sort of a mother’s day anyway. Every other day is a film noir, you know. And the other days are melodramas! I was wondering just before they sent the script to me, why was it that they had stopped making films, particularly the film noir genre, with women right in the heart of it, and women thinking. And the only thing that I have managed to come up with was that maybe it was simply that, the moment came, with the women’s movement, when it simply became more important to put women in films who were not expending their last drop of life’s blood to sustain the status quo and maintain some kind of patriarchal model. It became important not to see women in domestic situations all the time, and instead to see women who were more likely to throw it all up and take some kind of action in the world, and had a more renegade status in the world. The reason why I think it’s radical to come back to this subject matter now, is because women have always, in the intervening forty years, have gone on leading these lives, and they always will. Because the funny thing is that it’s not an intellectual issue. It’s not about what a woman’s thinking might be, not how enfranchised she is or feels she is. It’s this strange thing that happens, and I know it now, over the past there years, there’s this invitation when you become a mother, to merge, to give up, and really forget where you left your individuated self, and your intellect as well. And so many women find themselves 17 years later, like Margaret Hall, wondering where they put it. The trick is, in this immersion, to attend to all your virtual selves. It’s not a “political” issue, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a political issue! It’s difficult for women to think around this because it doesn’t involve thinking, in a funny way.



PM:

Did you imagine the absent husband in some specific way?



TS:

He is there, for everyone in the audience to conjure up in their own minds. But he changed for me, and kept changing, depending on how I was feeling each day about him. That issue is the central issue. The easy byline for this film is that it’s about a woman protecting her son, or her family. I don’t buy that at all. I buy that that’s what she thinks she’s doing. But I see that right in the heart of that, this moment when she says to the blackmailer, that she can’t talk to her husband about her son being gay. How different everything would be if she could say that one sentence. What is it that she’s protecting, in their relationship? What is it about the deal they’ve struck, about what family they’re going to have? What is it that’s going to come crashing down for her, if she tells him this one sentence? She would rather dive down to the bottom of the lake, and pull the keys out of the pocket of a corpse, than tell her husband about her son being gay. One guy in an audience in New York said, “Obviously, he’s a homophobe.” And I said, “Maybe he’s a homosexual! Maybe both.” But that seems to me to be the core if it. It’s the one thing she can’t do.



PM:

And the father-in-law is also some extension of the husband.



TS:

Yes, and—this is my own projection entirely—there are a couple of moments when I watch the film now, when it reminds me of myself, those moments when it’s possible for me to feel like my children and my children’s father are one family, and I’m just the alien in it. And Margaret has the same idea. Who are they all? They’ve all got the same surname and I’m me, and how did I end up in this group? It’s the way that a family can so surround a mother. I realized the other day that no one is ever going to pull a blanket up over me again. My children’s father is still in the presence of a mother, not his, but he’s around a mother. Lucky him! I think that’s what I mean, about this isolation—all of Margaret’s family has a mother, except her. It’s not just basic existential loneliness. It’s that the buck stops with you. She’s surrounded. But she’s got her cigarettes in the drawer, and her red dress and high heels somewhere in that closet.



PM:

This film is, in its distribution, more mainstream—whatever that means—than most of your other work. How do you think about that?



TS:

There’s no doubt about it. It’s been bought by Fox Searchlight and I’m sitting in this grand hotel suite talking to you. It’s a very lucky and happy circumstance that the film has a chance to be seen by more people. It didn’t feel like a departure for me to make the film, however. But if anything, I would say that the mountain’s beginning to come to Mohammad. I know that David and Scott would say the same thing: I’m still taking myself with me, into this release. It’s not a conditional business.



PM:

Does it change how you think about work you might do in the future?



TS:

Not really, though recently, there’s been a bit of a change for me, in the past couple of years. Maybe it’s the result of the drip-drip-drip of me working for so many years, but filmmakers have started to know about me, and wanted to work out what I’m good for, or what I’m interested in. People I’ve never met before have approached me with ideas, and they’ve been good ones. That’s a bit of a change. My faith is quite strong: do the work, make new friends, change your life.



PM:

It must have been extraordinary to have that relationship with Derek Jarman.



TS:

Yes, and I’m now coming to see just how extraordinary it was. It’s a wonderful thing when you’re starting as an artist, to be in an environment where you can experiment with your sense of yourself within the media. He really did make filmmakers of us all, from the composer to the actors. It was such a laboratory situation. Derek was a painter, which meant he worked alone. And when he made films, it was because he wanted to work in a group. And at the same time, one had to be on one’s toes with one’s own work. He wasn’t a director in the sense that he didn’t direct us with what he wanted us to provide. He didn’t necessarily know what he wanted, but he knew what he liked when he saw it, and so you had to be very resourceful, and self-sufficient in a way. And that’s a fantastic habit to acquire. And actually my luck is holding, because even after those extraordinary 8 years, I’m still be approached by filmmakers who get it. The way in which we work—and I’m now talking about all of my colleagues—is so formed by the sensibility, and the sensibility is what’s in the work. And that’s why I always feel a wry smile coming on when someone talks about the “mainstream,” especially in America—maybe it’s something to do with the class system—because there’s such an overriding sense that there is only one mainstream and that it has a capital M. And that is simply not the case. There are many streams that make the main. And some of us have never seen Titanic, but will stand in a queue for a long time to see Stan Brakhage. There’s an audience out there: we’re everywhere. And slowly, I think people who hold the purse-strings are starting to realize how bright people are and want to be. Maybe I’m just an optimist. But I think it’s true. And it always has been. Look at The Big Sleep: who on earth can tell you what it’s about? It’s so opaque and complicated. And yet, there it is!



PM:

And there are so many new ways to process information, now.



TS:

I look at my children now, watching them learn and think, and I’m just water-skiing behind them, or just in the temple, sweeping and lighting incense. They’re so advanced. It’s all getting better.



PM:

How is it to watch the gendering process going on differently for them?



TS:

It’s surreal, an endless seminar. And you know, it’s so interesting for me, having spent so much time in my work thinking about identity, and gender identity is such a large part of it. And all this time talking about there being no real difference between boys and girls! There is a difference [laughs]. Let me tell you. I think they’re really lucky children to have each other.



PM:

Margaret goes through some very intense changes in her own sense of identity, much of it having to do with gender roles and expectations.



TS:

I think of her at the beginning of the film, as being the one in the closet. She’s suspended, and there’s something about this crisis that brings her to the surface, fighting for air. I think it has something to do with her sexuality as well. I think that she was more or less the age that Beau is at now, when she got married and then became sexually active. And then had a child. And I don’t know yet, but I imagine that having one’s children become sexually active can be a “restimulating” moment. For her, being as banked down as she is, it’s really profound. When I see her watching that videotape, I project lots of things onto her, and one of the things I project is envy. There’s something in the ether around her son, that she’s outside of, just looking in. But there’s that other part of her too, where she has to care for everyone. She starts to care and look after the blackmailer.



PM:

And vice versa.



TS:

Exactly, and that’s extraordinary for her. When he says to her, “Do you ever get away from your family Mrs. Hall?”, no one has ever seen enough of her to ask her that question. He sees that and it’s a release for her, but also an assault. Because he sees her as an individual and calls that up in her. And then of course, she does go away from her family, to Reno for a couple of hours. And in terms of gender, she is Nora. That is a doll’s house, to a certain extent. And her code, her act as a woman, is so soft-voiced and so unchallenging. She never raises her voice to her children. She’s so passive, though what we see is her being secretly active. She’s not Erin Brockovich. She’s not Lara Croft. We’ve recently seen women being so active.



PM:

And at the same time, the film shows her activity, in that it’s so internal, so revealing of Margaret.



TS:

Yes, and that felt very familiar to me, the next project in a long line, continuing the work. Basically, I am always looking at the same thing, which is this question of how to make friends with all your virtual selves, how to be an integrated person, and specifically, an integrated woman. It’s true of Orlando, Female Perversions, this film, and the next film I’ve done, Technolust, where a woman clones herself three times. This is a substratum, for these characters who are forced to deal with veils and masks, usually with themselves, so the character is working only with the camera. And I find that supremely exciting because it’s supremely the thing that cinema can do, scrutinize unwatched faces. That’s my explanation of my passion for close-up. That’s where figurative cinema becomes art. It’s good for humans to look at other humans, in theory unwatched humans, and give them that specific kind of attention that you give to people who are distracted, or ailing, or unable to return your look. I’m a Bressonian, I believe that actors have to be careful about what they do in cinema, or they might be [caught] acting.[Audiences should] feel free to project everything onto the screen. That’s the deal, really. Active audiences, that’s what we want.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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