SEE IT BIG: EXTRAVAGANZAS! (Part One)
Saturday, December 18, 2021, 4:00 p.m.
1992, 94 mins. 35mm. Directed by Sally Potter. Screenplay by Sally Potter. Based on the novel by Virginia Woolf. Produced by Christopher Sheppard. Cinematography by Aleksey Rodionov. Edited by Hervé Schneid. Art direction by Michael Buchanan and Michael Howells. Costumes by Sandy Powell and Dien van Straalen. Music by David Motion and Sally Potter. Cast: Tilda Swinton (Orlando), Billy Zane (Shelmerdine), Quentin Crisp (Queen Elizabeth I), Simon Russell Beale (Earl of Moray).
Essay by Michael Koresky, Film Comment, April 2018
Published in 1928, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando was written as a gift for the author’s lover of many years, Vita Sackville-West. If anything can be called furiously whimsical it’s Woolf’s book, which buffets its title character across centuries and between genders: Orlando starts as a man of privilege in Elizabethan England and ends as a woman of letters in the postwar 1920s. Orlando barely ages, even though he goes from lovelorn youth to frustrated poet to chic ambassador to lady of leisure to modern woman, the main constancies an artistic curiousness manifesting as a desire to write and a much remarked-upon beautiful androgyny. Woolf and Sackville-West, who socialized and discussed literature and culture as members of the thoroughly modern bohemian Bloomsbury Group—which also included the gay writer Lytton Strachey, critic Clive Bell, and Woolf’s sister Vanessa and husband Leonard—had a longstanding and, today, much documented mutual correspondence that extended beyond the boundaries of their courtship. But their romance remains a subject of great fascination to biographers and scholars of gay culture, and Orlando is its most lasting testament. Sackville-West’s son, the writer Nigel Nicolson, called the book “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature,” and indeed those of us with a romantic persuasion could hardly imagine a more complimentary creation than Orlando, who is not only the embodiment of creative passion and the finest physical specimen of either man or woman but also, evidently, immortal.
Already an icon of queer literature and culture, Orlando would also become a natural avatar for the New Queer Cinema that fully blossomed in the early ’90s. Sally Potter’s muted yet lavish 1992 adaptation of Woolf’s book stars a young Tilda Swinton, in a role that thrillingly exploits her exquisite androgyny. At this point, the actor was already aligned with the New Queer movement—her period-transcending visual impact had already been harnessed by the great Derek Jarman in such queer film landmarks as The Last of England (1987) and Edward II (1991). Though Swinton is a remarkably apt embodiment of Woolf’s creation, Orlando is probably impossible to fully translate to the screen; the particulars of plot, character, and consequence are not as compelling or essential to Woolf as the interior growth and ultimate exhilaration of her (finally female) protagonist—the elements that make it a feminist work. Potter’s film is somewhat faithful to the literal events as they unfold in Woolf’s book, but the author was writing about something difficult to literalize in a cause-and-effect narrative, which is that Orlando is a constant in a transitory world: his/her ability to traverse centuries, and therefore bear witness to enormous societal and political change, is not the result of fantastical intervention but, in Woolf’s philosophical framework, a natural outgrowth of the fact that time is a construct, elastic and false.
Narrative films often provide rationales for what we see, so Potter’s version invents a mildly abstract reason for the metaphor that is Orlando’s temporal singularity. In the film’s first section, which is introduced with the onscreen marker “1600” (Woolf was never so clear with exact dates in her breathless storytelling), the young boy Orlando, an eager wannabe poet from an aristocratic family, has fallen into the favor of Queen Elizabeth I after presenting her with one of his rhymes. Soon after being made a royal mascot, Orlando shares an intimate moment with Her Majesty, during which she tells the fresh-as-milk youth, “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” Thus, Potter establishes Orlando’s immortality as both mystical and a regal directive. The literalizing frame that it puts around the character’s journey to come is somewhat reminiscent of Albert Lewin’s 1945 adaptation of another cornerstone of queer literature, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which invents a supernatural totem of an Egyptian black cat sculpture to give credence to Dorian’s “curse” of eternal youth. In this case, the Queen’s edict provides the film with a double helping of queerness: in a bit of gender-bending casting, the Queen is played, with delicious desiccation, by Quentin Crisp, the famed gay writer and raconteur, making his fairy-godmother blessing something like a queer decree. Here, as though with the wave of a wand, the Queen has bestowed life upon our hero, all but setting in motion the events that will eventually lead to him shirking the straitjacket of his male sex.
In this way, Orlando is also defined as unique to everyone else, more so than in Woolf’s book, which has various supporting characters emerging in and out of Orlando’s life over the course of many centuries as well, all of them subject to the same vicissitudes of time, the author’s true subject. Thus onscreen Orlando’s queerness—and eventual transformation at film’s midpoint into a woman—becomes something like a source of pride, which helps situate the film well and cleanly into the ethos of the New Queer Cinema. That political and aesthetically forward-thinking movement was partly defined by B. Ruby Rich this way: “In all of them, there are traces of appropriation, pastiche, and irony, as well as a reworking of history with social constructionism very much in mind. Definitely breaking with older humanist approaches and the films and tapes that accompanied identity politics these works are irreverent, energetic, alternately minimalist and excessive. Above all, they’re full of pleasure.” All of this applies to Orlando the movie, which uses Woolf’s novel—itself full of pleasure, as well as irony and satire—as a springboard for an inquiry into the politics and standards of its own time, and toggles between narrative minimalism and visual excess.
Read the entire essay at Film Comment.
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