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DIRECTED BY: Sally Potter
FEATURING: Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane, Charlotte Valandrey, John Wood, Lothaire Bluteau, Quentin Crisp, Jimmy Somerville
PLOT: A young English nobleman looks for his place while exploring the vicissitudes of life over the course of several centuries, delving into love, politics, war, and poetry; eventually, he becomes a woman.
COMMENTS: Tilda Swinton is the Mona Lisa. Not “looks like.” I say she’s the genuine article, galvanized by the muse Melpomene and reveling in the mask of placidity that she uses to conceal any deep feeling she might harbor. With her narrow, skeptical eyes and lips that betray only the barest hint of her bemusement with the world, Swinton is truly the living embodiment of that icon of mystery. What a magnificent piece of luck, then, to secure her services in the leading role of a person who views the trappings of gender and power with a maximum level of detachment and disinterest. An actor perennially dismissive of the limitations of gender, she navigates between sexes with hardly a hesitation. Orlando proves to be an excellent launchpad not only for her talents but also for the way she likes to deploy them.
We first meet Orlando in 1600 as an aimless boy who comes into the orbit of the Virgin Queen herself (played, in a piece of thematic foreshadowing, by the English raconteur Quentin Crisp). The Queen is eager to welcome this bare-faced boy into her orbit, but under one condition: “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” A modest request to be sure, but he will spend the next four centuries honoring the Queen’s command, steadfastly bypassing death or even aging in favor of a lengthy exploration of love, sex, and self.
If you didn’t know Orlando was adapted from a Virginia Woolf novel published 95 years ago, it might easily be branded as a fantasia of feminism or a revisionist history of transgenderism. As it stands, the film (like its source material) proves to be surprisingly prescient. The film is littered with historical examples of gender fluidity, from the songs performed by castrati to the stunning costumes of Sandy Powell, in which Restoration-era men are adorned with enough frills and artifice to make the patrons of the Met Ball look Amish, while women are sometimes indistinguishable from furniture that has been mothballed for the season. Orlando seeks to demonstrate that if you think androgyny and gender blurring are modern phenomena, well, crack open a history book.
Part of the film’s delight is that it is intensely interested in the strange, but the word is never applied to the things we find most unusual in it. “How strange,” the new-found Lady Orlando notes as she castigates the leading poets of the day for their indulgence in casual misogyny even as they extol the virtues of their feminine muses. “How strange,” she repeats as she apologizes for her failure to acquire the name of the fascinating man who arouses love in her for the first time. But the fact of her femaleness in spite of her previous masculinity? Not weird at all. The fact of the gender shift (which is portrayed less as a binary switch and more as a clarification) is the one thing Orlando seems entirely certain about. The moment where Orlando first lays eyes on her new form is immensely powerful, not for the shock of the change or for any eroticism attached to the nude, but rather for the gentle and pleasant surprise she finds in discovering that her sense of self is fully intact, completely divorced from language or attitude or anatomy.
While watching Orlando, there’s an inclination to feel that not very much is happening, and Swinton’s nonplussed vibe can feel at odds with the engagement you might expect as a viewer. But she’s a sly one, that Orlando, and her tale has a vivid afterlife in the brain as you consider the whole of their experiences and realize that nothing has lingered in quite the way you expect. You feel pity for the deluded Archduke Harry rather than anger at his effrontery. You find unexpected grace in the romantic overtures of Billy Zane. And most of all, you discover that the seemingly empty gaze of Tilda Swinton is in fact triumphant, because she knows so much that you never will. And to demonstrate it, all she needs is the hint of a smile.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Sally Potter’s marvelous 1992 film of this undeniably strange, altogether wonderful book now makes its way back to theaters after a digital restoration, and in a bleak cinematic landscape, this oddball film feels especially vital.” – Chris Wisniewski, Reverse Shot (2010 re-release)
(This movie was nominated for review by wuzzyfuzzums, who describes it thusly: ” Based on an equally weird novel by Virginia Woolf, our hero/heroine is an immortal aristocrat who transforms half-way through the movie from a man into a woman, for no particular reason.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)