In this essay, I would like to focus on a close analysis of Tilda Swinton’s performance in Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s The Deep End (2001). I will be honing in on Swinton’s use of ‘Flat Affect’, specifically in relation to the mis-en-scene of one scene. The mis-en-scene can be defined as the “film’s visual specifities”(Dix 2008: 11), including – but not exclusive to – setting, props, costume, lighting and acting. Andrew Dix describes these ‘pro-filmic’ elements as the “contents of a film’s visual field that are considered to exist prior to and independent of the camera’s activity”(2008:12). Another facet of The Deep End is the subversion of ‘Film Noir’ tropes of the film, for example Alek Spera (Goran Visnjic) is the inscrutable object of desire whilst Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton) becomes the composed protagonist, disposing of Darby Reese’s (Josh Lucas) body with the same expression used when folding clean, white laundry (Matthews 2001: 43). This “expression” or lack there of, is known as flat affect.
Affect is that which makes us aware we are subject to others, a state of mind relating to emotion, but not emotion itself, which is the display of a feeling. Flat affect is a form of under-performativity, a delivery that is expected but not delivered. Tilda Swinton is well known for her use of flat affect – she has a performance style that embodies blunted emotion, which leads her to frequently be cast in roles that exploit her use of interiority, her ability to convey something beneath the surface. However, Swinton often states in interviews that she is not utilising a special technique in her acting skills, “I’ve never been conscious of taking an alternative stance. My position is not alternative to me”(Swinton 1990: 222). Moreover she doesn’t feel she is an actress, as stated in an interview with Variety magazine, “I don’t know what it would take for me to feel like one… I understand it’s a strange thing to say because I do keep saying ‘Yes, I’ll dress up and be in your film.’ But when I hear proper actors talking about their lives and how they approach their work, I feel like I’m up another tree”(Riley 2014: 1).
The scene to be closely analysed shows Margaret entering the house, watching her son’s play in the lake, lying in bed awake at night, then carrying out domestic duties the next day whilst speaking on the telephone. This sequence comes after Margaret has disposed of Reese’s body, the lover of her son Beau (Jonathan Tucker). When Margaret found the body, she assumed that Beau had killed Reese, when in fact he had fallen onto an anchor by accident. Spera, a ghost from the criminal underworld, demands $50,000 from Margaret in return for withholding an incriminating video of Beau and Reese having sex, from the police.
Swinton wrongly believes her son killed Reese and is desperate to protect him from Spera and the police. This can be deduced from her entrance to the scene wearing dark sunglasses; keeping her knowledge secret. The use of sunglasses hides the depth of Margaret’s knowledge, as opposed to the reading glasses, which can imply intellectuality and knowledge. Mary Ann Doane writes that glasses on women are a signifier of “woman’s appropriation of the gaze”(1991: 27), which makes them a threat, so Swinton wearing sunglasses shows her appropriating the female gaze. When we first see Margaret, she is reflected upside down, in the extreme close up of the water drop from the kitchen tap. As it drops, the sound of the water hitting the sink is muted, as if underwater, implying that perhaps Margaret is out of her depth, as well as alluding to the terrifying flashbacks of Margaret having to dive into the water to take car keys from Reese’s corpse.
The extreme close-up of the water drop in shallow focus cuts as the water drops, and Margaret’s reflection with it, to a close-up of the tap still in shallow focus. This cuts to a straight on shot of Margaret with her sunglasses removed, placing groceries in paper bags on the kitchen counter. Margaret is isolated in her domestic sphere, shown through her ignored call “Hello?” as she stands in the kitchen. The camera is behind condiments, static throughout this shot, as Margaret walks across the kitchen with measured, composed steps towards the window in the front room. The scene cuts as the camera tracks her from behind a fish tank, with racking focus from the fish in the foreground, to Margaret coming to stand in front of the window, with a medium close-up from behind. Margaret stands facing away from the camera, with the natural light being blocked by her body, as she surveys her two sons playing in the lake. The freedom with which Beau and Dylan (Jordan Dorrance) play and swim contrasts with the panic at which Margaret felt when disposing of Reese’s body. The subsequent shot shows Swinton from the outside of the window, highlighting Margaret’s isolation with the knowledge with which she is burdened. Beau’s youth is emphasized by his playfulness with his younger brother, while his mother is trapped inside, behind the sterile glass window.
Swinton’s blank facial expression is characteristic of the flat affect used to hide the characters emotions, however the non-diegetic sound of emotive music allows the audience to build up a sense of sympathy for Swinton’s character. This cuts to a geography shot of the lake with the mountains on the horizon as the sun sets over the lake-house, followed by a close up of Swinton lying in bed. Swinton’s anxiety is emphasised in this scene, made apparent by the lighting, which is low key; there is a high contrast of light and dark as Swinton is lit from behind. The director could have chosen this lighting as another film Noir signifier where shadows and darkness are used to imply deceit and intrigue, but also to emphasise the emptiness of her marital bed, with shadows where her husband should be. Margaret’s interior struggle is that of having to deal with family life without her husband, shown by the lighting and mis-en-scene of this shot, making up for the flat affect shown by her facial expression.
Margaret’s inability to sleep due to her chaotic mind is shown through the shot of Swinton’s face fading slowly into the spinning washing machine, an example of a female-gendered object, representing purification. Margaret is trying to hold together a façade of composure, whilst protecting her son from a danger of which he is not aware. The close-up shot tracks from the spinning clothes to the dryer at Margaret’s foot level, as she reaches in to pull out a white shirt, another prop used to signify purification and domestic serenity. Margaret is talking on the phone to the bank, listing off a reel of numbers, as the camera cuts to a medium close up of Margaret, from the perspective of an outsider peering in through the window. She folds the white shirt and places it on a pile of white laundry, then leaves the room as the camera lingers on a ticking clock face, highlighting the Spera’s impending blackmail deadline. There is a voyeuristic nature to the camera’s positioning throughout this scene, behind the condiments in the kitchen, through the glass of the fish tank, into private spaces such as the bedroom, and through the glass window of the washroom. The intrusiveness of the camera location is counteracted by Swinton’s use of flat affect not giving anything away, and leaving the audience disappointed in terms of gaining something from Margaret’s interior.
To conclude, affect is that which makes us aware of, and subject to, others. Swinton subverts that in the scene analysed that shows how the cinematic language of the film, such as the pro-filmic elements (mis-en-scene) and the camera technique, supplements the flat affect used by Swinton. Swinton uses blunted affect and interiorises the emotional struggle the character is feeling because Margaret has to be a strong matriarchal figure, one who solves the problems of her children, looks after her husband’s father and keeps the domestic sphere spinning smoothly. Margaret becomes the sole provider for her family, shown through the groceries she brings into the kitchen. Her use of flat affect disconnects her from the family, shown through her inability to emotionally connect with them. The audience is positioned behind windows and objects, as though we are watching her without her knowing, which creates a sense of intrusion, allowing us to see passed Swinton’s flat affect and into her vulnerability. The film Noir tropes make the audience question our expected gender roles of this film, especially our expectation of Margaret, who is portrayed as the capable protagonist as opposed to a man.
Dix, Andrew. (2008) Beginning Film Studies. Manchester: Manchester University Press
Doane, Mary Anne. (1991) ‘Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator’ in Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge pp. 17-33
Matthews, Peter (2001) ‘The Deep End’ Sight and Sound, 11. 11. London: BFI pp.43-44
Riley, Jenelle. (2014) ‘Tilda Swinton on Why She Doesn’t Consider Herself an Actor’ in Variety. Published online: http://variety.com/2014/film/news/tilda-swinton-on-why-she-doesnt-consider-herself-an-actress-1201157011/ Accessed: 20.11.2014
Swinton, Tilda. (1990) ‘Subverting images of the Female’ New Theatre Quarterly, 6. 23. Published online: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=3020196&fileId=S0266464X00004516 Accessed: 29.11.2014
The Deep End (2001) dir. Scott McGehee and David Siegel, starring. Tilda Swinton and Goran Visnjic