Written and Directed by Sally Potter
Based on the novel by Virginia Woolf
It's hard to watch films like Orlando now without considering them the markers of the end of an era. A year or two after this film was released, the indie revolution would be in full swing, and many of the more interesting films of the next ten years or so would be about the lives of contemporary Americans trying to make sense of their lives, of the merging of high and low culture through accessible yet intelligent dialogue. Quirky directors would approach even high-minded material with a wit and panache that would invigorate long-dying genres and give energy to what might have been dull studio fare.
And, in the process, they would basically kill off the standard arthouse film. Sally Potter's Orlando is a film that bursts with an energy and vivacity but is still mired in the arthouse cliches of its time -- six years later, Shakespeare in Love would use many of the same basic techniques to bring home boffo box office and Oscar gold, but it also uses the sensibility and irreverence of the indie movement. Potter is a confident and stylish director, visionary enough to attempt to film the "unfilmable" novel by Virginia Woolf (which I admittedly have not read), courageous enough to step outside of narrative convention by allowing her protagonist to speak directly to camera, but without the willingness to provide a more straightforward throughline to her film, which instead devolves into a series of loosely-connected threads, some more interesting than others.
The title character is a young nobleman circa 1600 who is played by Tilda Swinton. Yes, that Tilda Swinton, so beautiful and feminine in a variety of roles, but a brilliant actress who is able to portray a male character who is embracing the feminine styles of young noblemen of the day. He is visited by Queen Elizabeth, who takes a shine to the young man and tells him that she will grant him the title to vast property, on the condition that he never withers and never grows old. And so he doesn't. Attentive viewers (or those with access to IMDB) will recognize that the queen is portrayed by the gay icon Quentin Crisp, so that a man playing a woman becomes physically attracted to a woman playing a man. This is a perfect and subtle setup for what will follow, as the role of gender will become the primary theme in the next four hundred years of Orlando's life.
We don't get a whole lot of detail about that life, as the film is only ninety minutes long and we follow about four centuries. No one seems to much notice that the man doesn't seem to age, and the day-to-day aspects of his life are left mysterious. Instead we are treated to a series of short film following different aspects of Orlando's life as he ages; first "Love," in which he falls in love with a visiting Russian princess who breaks his heart, then "Poetry," in which Orlando becomes patron to a promising poet in hopes that he too can learn to write great poetry. In the early stages, he comes across as a callow youth, protected by his wealth from the experiences that would hone his maturity, so much so that when he is eventually needed to take up arms in defense of an ally, he is unable to stomach it and flees the conflict.
And if he will not act as a man? Well, apparently nature has a few tricks up its sleeve, for Orlando wakes up a woman. He seems undisturbed by the prospect, turning to camera and shrugging, "Same person. Different sex," which is the kind of statement that might as well blare a bullhorn for the kind of material that follows. As a woman Orlando will be required to wear the outrageously impractical dresses of the day (a funny bit of physical comedy shows the new woman attempting to maneuver through her estate with her extremely wide hoop skirt) and will eventually be thrown off her own property, for women cannot own property.
Reading back through this review, I realize that I've made the film seem fascinating and nuanced. And so it is, but realize that I have described very nearly every event that occurs in the first hour of Orlando. Scenes drag out longer than necessary and philosophical points are elaborated again and again -- the film seems to be working more as a primer on Feminism 101 than as a feature. And to the degree that this is the intention of the filmmakers (which I believe it was), I find it hard to fault them, for Orlando works on that level, and is a film I'd show to anyone ignorant to the basic reasoning behind feminist thought. When a controlling man attempts to woo the female Orlando using the exact same language that the controlling youth used to woo the Russian princess, it's a moment of self-awareness that resonates strongly and illustrates perfectly the hollowness of those sentiments. So much of our vocabulary of love and desire essentially relegates women as the property of the desirer, and the message that Women Are People Too is one that should be shouted from the rooftop.
In the final half hour of Orlando Billy Zane shows up as an American adventurer, a character seemingly straight out of a romance novel who sweeps Orlando off her feet and shows her the joys of sex. They then have a long conversation that implies that Zane himself is a person who has changed sex, and gets into some muddy waters about the nature of masculinity and femininity. Zane's character seems to be a stand-in for progress and the modern world, and when he goes off in search of further adventures Orlando basically moves into the modern age, now towing a small child. The implication is that the child is Zane's, which would mean that Orlando was pregnant for a century or more.
It's in these kinds of details (another of these: Orlando runs through a hedge maze for five decades or so) that the essential "parable-ness" of the film becomes clear, and it seems that we are not meant to judge the film based on logical narrative cohesion. But what is the parable about? What message are we supposed to take from the film? There are some very clear (almost obtuse) messages on the surface, but is there something deeper, something that ties all of these stories together? This opacity is the greatest weakness of Orlando, in that it plays to the arthouse crowd with delusions of highmindedness rather than making itself more straightforward in execution, even if its message is complex. Perhaps Potter is relying on her audience having read the novel? Or perhaps the deficiencies are mine and mine alone, requiring spoonfeeding of the message of Potter's film.
Either way, my response to the film is my response to the film. I enjoyed Orlando for what it did right, but disliked some of the deliberate vagueness found therein. It's worth seeing, well-made and brilliantly acted by Swinton, but falls short of the greatness I wanted it to have.