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.