Director: Paul B Preciado (France). Year of Release: 2023
Paul B Preciado is fly posting. As he splashes on paste, we hear his voice on the voiceover: “Someone asked me: ‘Why don’t you write your biography?’ I replied: ‘Because fucking Virginia Woolf wrote my biography.’ As he apologises to Virginia for his use of the word “fucking”, the camera pans back to show the posters he’s been putting up: large white ones with “Orlando, ou es tu?” – Orlando, where are you? – written in red and green.
It is now nearly a century since Woolf wrote her groundbreaking novel “Orlando; A Biography”, about a young man who changes sex in his sleep and becomes a 36-year old woman, before travelling through four centuries. It is thirty years since Sally Potter’s film based on the book, which is referenced – directly and indirectly – in a couple of scenes here. One of the various people playing Orlando (we’ll come to that), looks eerily like Tilda Swinton in Potter’s film.
Preciado sees the film as a letter from himself to Woolf – although she is dead, she lives on in her writings – just as the original book, written before he was born, was a letter to the Paul B Preciado who didn’t exist yet. Throughout the film, nearly 30 trans actors, aged between 8 and 70, with different skin colours, genders and level of transition, play Orlando, and read from Woolf’s book. The cast list even acknowledges Rilke and Pompom who play Orlando’s dogs.
Preciado plausibly argues that the book’s time has come, although he does see some parts which need updating, notably the fact that the book’s Orlando is an aristo and a representative of colonial power. Each actor playing Orlando wears a white ruff to ironically point out that unlike him, they are diverse. Some (but not all) show an almost obsessive concern with how they look, but if you are fighting people who want to deny your very existence, this is hardly surprizing.
Each character introduces themselves by saying, “I’m <insert name here>, and in this film I’ll be playing Orlando by Virginia Woolf”. Part of this is a knowing wink showung that this is a film which is highly self-aware about its own artifice (there’s even a joke about Jean-Luc Godard, for God’s sake). At the same time it is very angry at those voices in society which see trans people as just play-acting, rather than simply acknowledging that being trans is just what they are.
At the time, the figure of Orlando was predominantly a metaphor for Woolf’s lesbian relationship with Vita Sackville-West, but the constant changing of bodies, times and locations, also make him a metaphor for the trans experience. A number of the actors, who often break the fourth wall to explain their personal experiences, talk of transition not as a move from one state to another, but a process. As Heraclitus said, everything is in a state of change, you can’t enter the same river twice.
One of the Orlandos makes exactly this point, saying “Life consists of a metamorphosis of oneself, letting oneself be transformed by time, becoming not only other but others.” Which, if I understand what they’re trying to say, is that it is wrong to describe gender fluidity as being one single thing, but as a gateway towards a multiplicity of choices. When Preciado says that there is an Orlando in all of us, this is a celebration of our untapped possibilities.
Preciado’s day job is as a philosopher, and boy does it show – but not necessarily in a bad way. The film is an inquisitive attempt to explain the trans experience. Although the most important point is that there is no single trans experience, some stories repeat themselves, from impatience and misdiagnosis from doctors fixed in an old way of thinking, to an over-dependence on psychiatry and medicaments to deal with problems which are mainly based in social discrimination.
Some people describe how not being welcome in society is not psychological but a physical reality, as their passports are no longer accepted as valid ID. There is a cathartic moment at the end of the film, where French writer Virginie Despentes comes on as a judge and declares “by the powers confided in me by Virginia Wolf and literature, I award citizenship and non-binarity.” She invites the various actors who we have seen playing Orlando to come forward and claim equality.
We also see archive footage of Christine Jorgensen, arguably the world’s first trans superstar, before the media once more forgot about her. Jorgenson was a clerical worker in the US Army in the Second World War, before she had gender reassignment surgery in Denmark in the 1950s. The footage that we see of Jorgensen arriving at an airport must be new to many viewers (mea culpa, it was to me), and strongly illustrates the erasure of trans people from taught history.
Reading so far, you might think that Orlando: My Political Biography is slightly pretentious and academic, and to be honest it is a bit. It just won the Teddy Queer Film award at the Berlinale, and though it played tonight to a packed house, I can’t see it making major inroads at your local Multiplex. Which means that, if we were to judge it on its ability to challenge current prejudices, then, to be honest, I don’t think that this is the film that will take an argument to the bigots.
But not every film should be judged on its political effectiveness. It’s a sense of how far we have come since Potter’s film and Woolf’s book, that a film of trans people articulating their personal experiences could be so uncontroversial. Yes, some of them go into meaningless abstractions, yes, it does get a bit repetitive by the end, but we should be celebrating the fact that something like this exists at all, particularly given the poisonous nature of the current debate about trans rights.