Friday, March 27, 2020

Sally Potter | Orlando


sleeping beauty
by Douglas Messerli

Sally Potter (writer and director) Orlando / 1994, USA 2010

Sally Potter’s cinematic retelling of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is stuffed with various explorations of sexuality, particularly concerning the role of women, androgyny, and transsexuality. But it is also a history of the United Kingdom from the death of Queen Elizabeth I to the present-day, seen mostly through the eyes of its brilliant central character (Tilda Swinton).
      Swinton as Orlando begins life as the young male courtier in the Elizabeth I court, who is so handsome and talented that the dying Queen (performed with near-perfect irony by the gay/trans woman Quentin Crisp) awards him a palace and a generous annual financial gift if he only agrees to her terms: “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old."

    Somehow he magically does not appear to age and is prepared to marry a venal woman who would probably drive him crazy until he meets the Russian Princess Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey) with whom he immediately falls in love. When she refuses his offer of marriage and fails to show up for a meeting with him under London Bridge, he undergoes a crisis of sorts which consists of several days of sleep (reminding me a little of the long day-long sleep that the young heroine of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt undergoes when she discovers that her beloved uncle is a murderer).
     Indeed, you might subtitle this film as “Sleeping Beauty.” Orlando recovers and to resolve his sorrows he takes a job as English ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, yet further crises follow. Although Orlando remains a male, the addition of long male wigs during this era might almost be said to make him over into a woman, which, after another crisis which involves another long period of sleep, he finally discovers he has become. As Swinton quips: “Same person, no difference at all.”
      She now returns home as the glamorous Lady Orlando, immediately to be challenged by government lackeys over Elizabeth’s largess, since women were not allowed to own property or accept the inheritance agreements that Orlando has.
      Over a period of 50-year transitions, we see the female Orlando tiresomely having to counter court suits while falling in love with a male, Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine (Billy Zane), and producing a daughter.
      By the early 1990s, when Potter’s film ends, she has nearly been worn out by battles to declare her rights of gender and the longevity of her life leads her to declare: “Today or always tomorrow I am neither a woman or a man.”
      Yet by the end “me” of Orlando that has been uncovered seems to find some peace simply sitting under an orchard tree with the daughter beside. Orlando finally has found a new outlet in writing a book about his/her history, accepted by an 20th-century editor played by Heathcote Williams, who earlier in the film, performing as the fictional Elizabethan poet Nick Greene, derided Orlando’s poetic attempts.
       The beauty of this film does not lie in its fragile and often incongruous plot, but in its dash through British history supported by the glorious art direction of Ben Van Os and Jan Roelfs and the costume design Sandy Powell, all of whom were nominated for Academy Awards.
     Although there’s lots to think about in Porter’s film, the transformations of all kinds visually displayed make this excellent work a bit more like the films of Sergei Paradjanov than any other British or US filmmaker. And Swinton is at every moment someone to behold. She is simply a being to admire and love, helping us to comprehend, as Potter notes, “The intellect is a quite solitary space.”

Los Angeles, March 27, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2020).

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