Classically beautiful women should be left to men without imagination. Or so said Marcel Proust. The French have an expression I adore: jolie laide. Literally, it translates to beautiful ugly; the Collins English Dictionary defines it as “a woman whose ugliness is her chief fascination.” I think that is, perhaps, too simple an explanation. When I think of jolie laide, I think of women like Anjelica Houston and Sigourney Weaver, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, models Erin O’Connor and Kristen McMenamy, and (one of our editor’s favourites) Diana Vreeland. And I absolutely think of Tilda Swinton.
Tilda Swinton, photographed by Raymond Meier
The first movie I saw her in was Orlando, an adaptation of a Virginia Woolf novel. Though the story was interesting – a man who decides never to age and, as if that wasn’t enough, wakes up one morning transformed into a woman – it was Swinton I wanted to see. Already people were talking about her extraordinary androgyny. Jolie laide. While many of the roles that came after were not nearly so unlikely, Swinton kept me interested with intense acting and unsettlingly green eyes. She could go from delicate and fragile to masculine and frightening in a space of moments. I liked her best in her stranger roles, though. As the despicable arcangel Gabriel, she almost made Constantine (a really terrible film) worth the two hour slog, and her palest of pale White Witch in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe was the perfect mix of diabolical beauty and avant-garde fashion.
I’m pretty sure Tilda Swinton’s Oscar 2009 outfit made every “Worst Dressed” list in the western world. It was, in fact, a replay of 2008, when her long, black, one-sleeved Lanvin creation excited just as much censure. And yet both outfits were lovely – both ultramodern and understated elegant. I am convinced that on another woman they would have gone unremarked. But Swinton’s severe features transform her undeniably stylish clothes. There is something in her pale, almost alien features that defies all notion of conventional beauty. A true jolie laide, Swinton is both beautiful and ugly and impossible to classify – a complexity that does not lend itself to dividing the notions of “best” and “worst”.
Unattractiveness is an important thing. It binds us to the world and everything in it, just like beauty. If there is only one, it doesn’t make any sense. Proust was right. Ultimately, the state of jolie laide is much more interesting than just jolie. Despite Hollywood’s valiant (if misguided) attempt to assert a single, empirical beauty, women like Swinton will always appeal to those who are willing to use their imaginations.