'Orlando' (1992) by Sally Potter

'Orlando' (1992) by Sally Potter

Opulent, cheeky, and fun as hell. I want to live inside of this movie. As a rule, I generally try not to see film adaptations of my favorite books because I've been burned in the past and don't feel like suffering through the disappointment. This might be an unpopular opinion, but all of the Harry Potter movies are horrible. I wish I could go back in time and un-watch them. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? Why did anyone let that happen. As I Lay Dying directed by James fucking Franco? No. No. No. I love Jodorowsky, but I'm glad that he ran out of money and was unable to make Dune. It's unfortunate that David Lynch wasn't similarly stalled.

Despite my previous misgivings about book-to-film adaptations, Sally Potter's Orlando impressed the hell out of me. I had low expectations going into the movie for the first time last weekend, but they were far exceeded. The adaptation is loose, but it perfectly captures the spirit and sensibility of the novel and allows Tilda Swinton to truly shine as Orlando. Even if you dgaf about Virginia Woolf, the film is worth watching solely for the stunning work by Sandy Powell, one of the few costume designers I follow obsessively.

Best time to watch:
Whenever you're sick and want something fun and absorbing to watch while you drink tea and become one with the couch. You can alternate blowing your nose with gasping at Quentin Crisp's delightful transformation into Queen Elizabeth I.

Whenever you're feeling bored with the low-budget, eyesore indie films of the past few years. Orlando might have premiered at Sundance, but it wasn't exactly a cheap film. With a budget of $5M (approximately $8.7M in 2017), Sally Potter was able to maximize her production dollars by shooting in Russia. Surprisingly, she also got her first round of funding from Russia after every major source in Britain rejected her. In an interview with The LA Times, Potter says the film, "would have cost $30 million if we had made it in the States." I believe it. In my opinion, the production value of this film is on par with Shakespeare in Love, which was made for $25M in 1998 and won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Worst time to watch:
When you don't feel like watching a British period film. I know some people who love this genre and are always in the mood to watch, but I'm not one of them. I still haven't seen Love & Friendship because even though I'm sure I'll like it, the act of watching it feels like a chore. I tried to watch Downtown Abbey one time when I was hungover and got through half an episode before I had to shut it off. I couldn't understand them! And my sleepy, headache-y, where-the-fuck-is-my-tuna-melt, state of mind didn't exactly make me the most attentive viewer.

I was an English major in college, but I didn't really care about my Shakespeare and Early British Literature classes. I understood their necessity and value, but I was never going to be excited about them. The style and aesthetics just didn't (and still don't) appeal to me most of the time. If your tastes are similar to mine, just trust me and wait until you can handle the genre before you press play on Orlando.

Where to watch:
Sign your boyfriend up for a free Sundance Now trial via his Amazon Prime account. Just don't forget to cancel it in seven days or you'll look like an asshole. If you live in NYC, you could also hit up Anthology Film Archives on 4.15 or 4.19. Orlando is playing as part of their Trans Film series.

Quick summary:
Orlando (Tilda Swinton) is a young nobleman and aspiring poet who becomes a page for Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp). When she's on her deathbed, the Queen tells him, "Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old." So Orlando doesn't. He lives for hundreds of years - some of them as a man, some of them as a woman - without perceptibly aging. The film is separated by intertitles: 1600-death; 1610-love; 1650-poetry; 1700-politics; 1750-society; 1850-sex; birth.

Orlando is not the type of film I typically gravitate towards. There's something about period costume pieces that instantly make my eyes glaze over, even if they're well revered and I've been told by 1,000 trusted sources that I must watch. I'm especially wary when they're based on novels or plays that I very much enjoy and don't want to see ruined by bad acting, direction, production, etc. Personally, I like to keep film and literature separate, like church and state. (So actually, not separate at all? Sorry, that was a bad example.)

In a few rare instances, I'll unexpectedly fall in love with a book-to-film adaptation. Here are some examples:

  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - directed by Julian Schnabel, based on the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being - directed by Philip Kaufman, based on the novel by Milan Kundera
  • The Shining - directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel by Stephen King
  • Coraline - directed by Henry Selick, based on the novella by Neil Gaiman
  • Ghost World - directed by Terry Zwigoff, based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes
  • Breakfast at Tiffany's - directed by Blake Edwards, based on the novella by Truman Capote

I spent 15 minutes brainstorming, and the films above were the only ones that came to mind. Orlando also undoubtedly deserves a place on this list.

I'm a huge Tilda Swinton fan (who isn't?) and I've seen all of her big films, but her performance as Orlando stands out to me as her absolute best. Throughout the film, Orlando (Swinton) breaks the fourth wall several times and visually or auditorily engages the audience. This first happens at 0:01:40 when he sits under a tree as his own voiceover talks about his sex, upbringing, and future. As the voiceover says, "but when he," Orlando looks directly at us and says, "that is, I." Orlando is as aware of us as we are of him and this first interruption sets our expectations for more audience awareness and engagement in the future. It also creates a participatory gaze - we look at Orlando and our gaze is reciprocated by his own.

In "Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema," Laura Mulvey argues that the techniques of narrative filmmaking privilege an active male gaze (the spectator, along with the characters on screen), while the female characters are either fetishized or punished (348-9). Sally Potter defies this convention by a) allowing Orlando to gaze back and b) giving Orlando his/her own voice via voiceover and carefully crafted dialogue. By creating this version of Orlando, a character who lives outside of gender, class, property, and time, Potter is not so subtly flashing a giant middle finger at the patriarchy.

How many times have we seen this device fail in film/tv? I remember the first few episodes of Sex and the City where Carrie (SJP) and other characters would stop and directly address the audience. It was super gimmicky, felt forced as hell, and didn't seem to serve any specific purpose. It also diluted the allure of the show. I watch Sex and the City because the Manhattan they portray is a fun fantasyland where all anyone does is drink fuck, and attend fabulous parties. I don't want to be friends with any of the characters! They're all basically exaggerated archetypes of people I can't stand in real life and my enjoyment of the show isn't dependent on my connection with them; Orlando, however, is different because its success or failure directly depends on how invested we are in the titular character.

Although Tilda's expressive face and nuanced performance take this film to the next level, it would still be fantastic without her and works on so many different levels. If you're interested in reading more in-depth analysis, here are two great graduate-level essays that I highly recommend:

If you're interested in reading more about Virginia Woolf (and lesbianism/gender identity), this book is a must.

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