Orlando at 30: Sally Potter’s Winking, Dazzling Allegory of Sexuality

Thirty years ago, Sally Potter’s Orlando (loosely adapted from the novel of the same name by Virginia Woolf) marked her triumphant return to filmmaking. She’d had trouble securing funding after her previous movie The Gold Diggers (an avant-garde, anti-capitalist sci-fi musical) flopped. If Orlando promised the safer pleasures of a sexy literary adaptation, Potter still subtly imbued the movie with critiques of power, privilege, and gender while skimping on none of the sensory pleasures indicated by the source text. 

Woolf’s Orlando has produced many interpretations. It’s most often described as an allegory of the life of her friend and lover Vita Sackville-West, and has been seen as one of the richest representations of the mutable complexities of gender and sexuality, but also a satire of Englishness: its literature, its colonialism, and its sense of its own history. 

The novel follows a 17th century nobleman who becomes a favorite of the aged Queen Elizabeth the First. Following the Queen’s command ”do not wither, do not grow old,” Orlando goes on to live another 400 years. Over the centuries, Orlando scarcely ages, but in the 1600s the heretofore male Orlando transforms into a woman. It is a transformation that requires adaptation (dressing becomes more complicated), but one that leaves Orlando as fundamentally the same person. Female Orlando dives into the British literary circles of the 18th century; in the 19th, she marries the sea captain Shelmerdine, a being as androgynous as Orlando (them?)selves, living and thriving on through the novel’s own day (1928).

Woolf’s Orlando is gorgeous in both its sensorial density and winking archness. The young Orlando (full of passion he longs to turn into poetry) stumbles into the world headlong, constantly seeking the right metaphor to describe the essence of the lover, or the natural beauties of England’s green and pleasant land. If his descriptions are never quite the right fit, the reader is still seduced by them, longing to be lost in their carnal depths. At the same time, Woolf takes a metatextual stance toward the material in the recurring presence of the “biographer,” who gently mocks Orlando’s ardor and pretensions, and also notes her frustrations when dealing with gaps in the historical record. 

In film, where everything in the frame seems prima facie, definitively and materially real, long arpeggios of metaphorical transformation are difficult to transpose, and knowing, intervening narrators should be used cautiously. It’s to Potter’s great credit that she finds cinematic (though hardly realist) solutions to these two halves of Woolf’s vision. Sensory pleasure often comes in the form of grand tableaux, generally as rituals in royal or aristocratic settings. The velvets and furs and dripping pearls, devised by brilliant costume designer Sandy Powell, are sumptuously divine. 

But the mannered steps of court dances, and the slightly ridiculous images of servants scurrying behind a procession of nobles trying to anticipate their masters’ every need, tends to tilt into amusing camp. Fabio Cleto wrote that camp sometimes occurs when we look backwards at a past that seemed more theatrical than our own. The Tudor and Stuart courts are hard to beat for theatricality, and Potter leans into this. Queen Elizabeth is played by writer and queer icon Quentin Crisp, a choice that ends up being both ironic and not, as Crisp grasps both the Queen’s artificial hauteur, and her genuine fear of aging. 

The arch voice of the biographer is, in Potter’s film, largely replaced with brief moments of direct address from Orlando themselves. Swinton handles this deftly, gazing at the camera impulsively rather than in an explicitly Brechtian fashion. Her commentary, ranging from the curiously passionate (“I think I’m going to faint. I’ve never felt better in my life.”) to the wondrous but authoritative acceptance of Orlando’s transformation (“Same person. No difference at all.”) It makes perfect sense to us now that Swinton, our great poet of androgyny, would knock this role out of the park, but it is more than her appearance and her posture that makes her shine here. Her eyes –the intensity of a gaze, a cautious dart sideways, the mere fluttering of her lashes –convey nearly everything about Orlando’s transition from youthful boyish ardor to unorthodox, adventurous womanhood. 

There’s no doubt, in Potter’s version, that it is womanhood where sexual pleasure, and liberty, lies. It is when Orlando is rescued from a fall by the dashing Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) that real carnality surfaces in the film. The sexiest scene comes when Orlando and Shelmerdine first really talk to each other, spelling out their desires and realizing that they’re better off as lovers than husband and wife. In a conversation that Potter shoots quite intimately, the camera moving back and forth between each lover’s face, each says what they would do if they were of the opposite gender. The screen crackles with both intellectual and sexual differences that nevertheless includes an empathetic understanding of the other. When the couple does go to bed together, there’s a shockingly carnal shot of Orlando’s hip, which pans upward to reveal the dip of her waist and the rise of her ribs, heightening the femininity of what we’ve come to see as an androgynous body.

Potter wholeheartedly embraces Orlando’s final form of womanhood, taking her story past Woolf’s timeline and into her own present day (the early 90s). With a book deal, a child, and a vintage motorcycle, Orlando is finally free, stripped of the antiquated ideas of aristocratic Englishness her old identities had shackled her to. That single motherhood should be the manifestation of a woman’s freedom is a complex and perhaps contradictory one, but Potter presents it with such passionate certainty and beautiful imagery that we cannot help but take a chance and expand our ideals of the possible, just as our hero/heroine has done throughout the film.

“Orlando” is streaming on MUBI and available for digital rental or purchase.

Julia Sirmons writes about film, media and performance. Her work has appeared in Bright Wall/Dark Room, CrimeReads, The Theatre Times and Another Gaze. She has a PhD in Theatre and Performance from Columbia University.

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