'Orlando': Sex and Self

Jesse Hicks

Orlando's artificial, gauzy atmosphere creates a meditative space for questions about the relationship between social convention and individual inner life.


Director: Sally Potter
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Year: 1993
US date: 2010-07-23 (Limited Re-release)
You suffer in advance.

-- Princess Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey)

Sally Potter’s Orlando, based on a novel by Virginia Woolfe and first released in 1993, casts Tilda Swinton as a centuries-old androgynous figure who changes with the times while remaining wholly singular. The film’s fugue-like movement offers an associative highlight reel as Orlando moves through time, space, and even sex. The artificial, gauzy atmosphere creates a meditative space for questions about the relationship between social convention and individual inner life.

Orlando (Swinton) first appears as a melancholic young poet in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, played by a world-weary Quentin Crisp. Orlando's first faux pas involves reading a poem about the grace and vitality of youth, comparing a young maiden to a delicately opening flower. (Orlando’s trite poetry surfaces throughout the early parts of the film, reflecting the apparent conventionality of his mind.) Her Aging Majesty takes umbrage. In time, however, she grows to appreciate Orlando, promising to leave her house and property to him upon her death. Ever the imperial monarch, she leaves him with a final decree: “Do not fade. Do not whither. Do not grow old.”

He obeys, maintaining his youthful, almost asexual appearance throughout the film. His unchanging body, however, belies an evolving mentality. Where some films portray immortality as stasis, Orlando offers a protagonist under constant revision. He begins as a proto-Romantic, devoted to poetry and contemplation of Great Topics. As events flash by -- the deaths of the Queen and of Orlando's father; his marriage engagement -- he remains abstracted, lost in his own life. In the early going, Swinton plays him with wide-eyed detachment and a tendency to make self-consciously “profound” declarations.

He makes one such impulsive assertion to Princess Sasha (Charlotte Valendrey), a visiting Muscovite. The sheltered Orlando enjoys displaying his French to the exotic Sasha; soon he's ignoring his fiancée and voicing his love for Sasha. Yet in the language of his time, he can only do so by claiming her as a possession: “But you are mine!” When Sasha asks him why, befuddled Orlando responds, “Because... I adore you.” In his mind and in his England, such declarations have binding power. Sasha feels no such obligation, leaving Orlando to fume about “the treachery of women!”

Orlando spends his time in England nursing his self-pity with pronouncements like, “Nothing thicker than a knife's blade separates melancholy from happiness.” (The film's affected dialogue underscores the dream-like artificiality of the story; it's also a practical necessity in adapting Woolfe's virtually dialogue-less novel.) His mood (and the film's) lifts only after he falls asleep for several days, with his servants engaging in a comedically escalating series of wake-up calls. But when Orlando does awaken on his own, he now has the body of a woman. Standing naked before a mirror, Orlando proclaims, “Same person. No difference at all... just a different sex.” While this is perhaps true, Orlando will find that sex matters, regardless of person.

After this transformation, the film more effectively emulates the satirical wit of Woolfe's writing. Because of the sexual transformation, British officials declare Orlando dead and thus unable to own property. (Being female, one officer helpfully adds, amounts to much the same thing as being dead.) This legal decree, paradoxically, offers Orlando some freedom from social convention. When an archduke offers to marry her, she feels no qualms about denying him -- despite his insistence that he adores her. Instead of lamenting the loss of her social class and property, she gets on a motorcycle and takes to the open road, soon enough with her daughter in a sidecar.

Having spent some 400 years alive, at film's end, Orlando looks directly into the camera. She does so with the self-sufficient gaze of a person -- man or woman -- no longer bound by social convention.

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