Sally Potter’s 1992 gender-bending fantasia, Orlando, was way ahead of its time. Based on the novel of the same name by Virginia Woolf, it broke ground, as did Woolf’s story, that had remained pretty much untilled. As viewed now, in our modern age of pansexual, polymorphous relationships, a strong case can be made for how influential a film it was on world society and socio-cultural mores.
Tilda Swinton, the star of Potter’s proceedings, has spent a career skirting conventional mainstream projects, going instead for passion projects she felt were edgy, free of boundaries and caution, movies she was compelled to make for their importance rather than their box office draw. An ethereal type (like her contemporary, Cate Blanchett, she has a chalky white translucence, albino eyes, and firm, hard cheekbones), Swinton is capable of slipping as easily into a male character as she is a female one; she has an otherworldly, space alien androgyny that makes her convincing when playing the “Other,” whatever that “Other” a script calls for her to be. She is perfect as Orlando, an Elizabethan-era boy who, in the course of the story, transforms into a girl. And we accept her as a boy not because she sports any definite male characteristic or swagger, but rather because her looks transcend all genders. She embodies the belief put forth here that all love is genderless. The impish grin that widens her face at times seems free of category, an animal almost. She looks like many different animals all at once. A singular person encompassing all. From the very first scene, Potter’s camera is making love to Swinton, to you, seducing you to love Swinton. Her courtly male duds hide her female breasts, her comely lines. Her wavy hair, fixed in the style of Elizabethan boys, is both masculine and feminine. We are instantly made curious by the instant openness of what we see.
No greater coup of casting than that of gay icon and raconteur, Quentin Crisp, as Queen Elizabeth the 1st, exists. For Crisp, himself, bent rules of gender at a time when to be flamboyantly, publicly gay was an invitation to ridicule and alley bashings. Crisp’s Derek Jarman-like portrayal of a queen skirts the line between regal superiority and a surprising kindness; she so loves Orlando, his beauty, his youth, that she makes him her heir on the one condition that he will stay forever young.
The whole movie glows with Elizabethan tableaux of unbelievable authenticity, a cold awareness of the tenderness of feeling lying beneath pomp and formality. Beneath what is proper or normal, and what is real, honest, and true, is that need all humans have to break free, break through to their genuine selves. Orlando can no more deny his nature than the starry beads in his costumes can conceal their glitter, nor does he want or attempt to. The lords and ladies of his court scorn his romantic entanglement with a Cossack girl (someone they consider to be Orlando’s inferior) but the question Potter raises in us is whether a woman playing a man can love another woman. She is gifting us with double vision. This same question was posed in Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria (1982) and the following year in Barbra Streisand’s Yentl. While Victor/Victoria is played for comic effect and Yentl has strong religious conflicts at its core, Orlando‘s conflicts are societal, bringing us, the audience, into the debate. In 1992, gender roles were still set pretty much in stone for most people. Same-sex marriage was a long way off, as was Caitlyn Jenner. Polymorphous unions — open marriage — well, those were planets away from acceptance. What Potter wished for us to consider is this — does loving another mean you will do anything to make that love happen? Does loving oneself mean the same? When the Cossack girl abandons Orlando, he finds solace at first in words, in the comforts of poetry. This too, Woolf believed to be the only way a broken heart could heal. A victim of sexual and mental cruelties in childhood, the author turned to producing literature as a saving grace until even that, in the end, failed her. It ultimately fails Orlando who next looks to politics to salve his wounded soul. When this uplifts and then sends him falling, Icarus-like, to earth, he finally sees that his only salvation lies in him changing gender.
But Potter is after more than the politics of gender, the politics of the body or of beauty. Ultimately, Orlando is about the politics of freedom. When Orlando transforms, he looks directly into the camera and states, “I am the same person, just a different sex.” He realizes his genitals do not constitute spirit. The inclusion of Jimmy Somerville at this moment underscores this lesson; he is a court eunuch. Looking at him, listening to him, we see a lovely, genderless being. He sings like the lark. We understand.
In the end, Orlando grows beyond gender, asking us to free our minds of labels, of prejudice, of limits. We are lifted on board the magic carpet of liberation. This bold, brave spirit is riding, with no guarantees of where it will lead except for the assurance that it does lead somewhere never seen or experienced before, and that is the enticement, the pearl inside the oyster, the journey souls must take if they are ever to find enlightenment.