When we first meet Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) in Constantine, it’s not the kind of introduction you expect for an archangel. Constantine (Keanu Reeves) approaches carefully, like he knows better, but he’s going to do so anyway. It’s uncomfortable to watch because Constantine is uncomfortable. Gabriel is an angel of God. He kills demons by invoking the name of the Lord. It’s a moment.
Gabriel is in a pinstripe suit, facing the fire. Constantine approaches and dark wings appear, flaring outwards. Constantine averts his eyes, almost reverent; this is, after all, the creature titled the strength of God. The display is meant to impress and frighten. (“Be not afraid,” bitch, what if I am? Mark me down as scared and horny.) Gabriel turns, and they’re wearing a big tie, a classic blue button down, sporting an asymmetrical, androgynous haircut and without any kind of beauty makeup on. All my life, I had imagined Gabriel as a man (even in the Hellblazer comics, he presented as a man), and here was a very different version of the archangel.
When I tell you I was changed, I mean it. This film came out in 2005, and for 15-year-old Linda, who was weird, queer, made to go to church and study the Bible as a child, who grew up in the South and loved stories, the idea that Gabriel could be something… else? Not a man, not a woman, but a third unknown, different thing? Incredible. I was obsessed with this film immediately, and captivated by Tilda Swinton as Gabriel for the entire rest of the film, and when I tell you I will broker no negative criticism for this film I mean it. Just for Gabriel, this film is perfect.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Tilda Swinton has made a series of pointed career choices centered around dismissing gender as an inconsequential side-effect of mortality. Besides Gabriel in Constantine, Swinton was also the titular Orlando in the screen adaptation of the gender-fuckery/bisexual time-travel romance novel of the same name by Virginia Woolf. Orlando, for those unfamiliar, is a story of a poet who changes genders and lives for centuries, interacting with famous literary figures. They also romantically pursue (and are pursued) by both men and women, including the Archduchess/Duke Harriet/Harry. Throughout the novel Orlando meets an array of gender non-conforming people, and the book is largely considered a groundbreaking piece of romantic queer literature. (I’d also argue that Swinton’s vampire character in Only Lovers Left Alive also plays with gender, but that’s a blog for another time, I think.)
It’s not just Gabriel that occupies this third-thing space, but it’s also that the whole film is obsessed with crossing boundaries, challenging authority, and destroying binaries (remember what Consantine says about cats? “Half-in, half out anyway”). There is no rule or piece of lore laid out for us that is not broken at some point over the course of the film. This is dramatically revealed in the final third act of the movie when it turns out that Gabriel themselves is attempting to release the anti-Christ, the spawn of Satan, on the earth. Lucifer, not so keen on the idea, saves Constantine’s life in a fit of jealous rage, and Gabriel is defeated, emerging out of the pool with their wings lopped viciously off. Whatever they are now, it is not holy.
When Gabriel appears towards the end of the film, it’s in an outfit that is exceptionally queer and campy—an all-white number that emphasizes a more masculine shape. They’re acting as an independent agent of chaos. They are defeating the binary of good and evil in order to create a new thing that is both worse and better. Gabriel, servant of God, adherent of heaven, the holy messenger, is moving toward a purpose of their own creation; they are creating a new meaning for their life, one that destroys our expectations for whatever Gabriel, angel of the Lord, is supposed to be. Even at the end of the film, Gabriel is about choice—they tell Constantine that he can be the hand of God if he choses to be—that he’s always had a choice. In a way, Gabriel is also talking about themselves. They have always, no matter what, made their own choices. God’s plans be damned. Literally.
The fact is that Gabriel didn’t just fuck with gender, they fucked with everything. That’s the best part of their character: that Gabriel is not defined by simply crossing gender boundaries determined by a casting choice, but that Gabriel is defined in the film as crossing every boundary. This is what I was really drawn to as a kid—this character who was able to clearly break free from all expectations, from casting to performance to story, who was able to choose, every time, to be a third, different thing, to say fuck it all, and then, despite that, they are still given space to define themselves, to change their story, and to own all of their decisions, good, bad, and whatever else.
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