Tuesday 2 July 2024

Orlando, My Political Biography (Paul B. Preciado, 2023)

Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography has previously been adapted for the screen by both Ulrike Ottinger (Freak Orlando, 1981) and Sally Potter (Orlando, 1992).  While Ottinger's effort veered towards the experimental, Potter's relatively accessible work quickly outgrew the arthouse box it had initially been placed in, and the film became a box-office success as it cemented the star status of Tilda Swinton.  While Swinton—who was hitherto best known as Derek Jarman's muse—was joined by an eclectic supporting cast (Quentin Crisp, Lothaire Bluteau, Billy Zane), Orlando proved to be a rather brittle, hollow experience, and Potter ultimately hit the same hurdle as Ottinger: the novel is one in which much hinges on the title character's interior life.  That said, the essentially private nature of Woolf's coded book is somewhat tempered by its high-concept premise.

For Orlando: A Biography is a work in which its eponymous male hero—having reached the age of 30, or thereabouts—metamorphoses into a woman, and goes on to live for several centuries (the story begins in Elizabethan times and ends on the day the novel was published).  It is not hard to see why this back-of-a-beermat idea would appeal to filmmakers—even those as cerebral as Potter and Ottinger—yet the ease in which the basic outline of the story can be adapted for the cinema is soon offset by the knotty details in Woolf's writing.  Largely inspired by Virginia Woolf's complicated love affair with her fellow writer Vita Sackville-West—Orlando's dual existence is said to represent the two sides of Woolf's lover's personality—Orlando: A Biography is a roman à clef that has no particular interest in giving up the secrets swirling around its key.        

The latest filmmaker to take a tilt at Orlando: A Biography is first-time director Paul B. Preciado, who opts for a refreshingly different approach from those of Potter and Ottinger in his attempt to crack the novel's subtext.  Orlando, My Political Biography is a documentary in which Preciado presents 20 or so different trans and non-binary people, each of whom inhabits the Orlando character while narrating the events of their own life (while Woolf's pioneering book explored the concept of transgender identity, it operated strictly in binary terms).  Via this setup, Preciado actively leans into Woolf's surprisingly complex novel, and the results are satisfying in a way that soon outstrips both of the aforementioned film adaptations of this text; it's as if the director has realised that a more aggressive style is required to reach the heart of Orlando: A Biography.    

There's a real sense that this is the first screen version to successfully grapple with the source novel's central tenet; perhaps Preciado realised that, while Orlando: A Biography is classed as a work of fiction, its hero is a proxy for a real person and, as such, real people were needed to tease out what Virginia Woolf was driving at.  Thus, a fictional biography is both explored and augmented by a documentary film, and it's fascinating to witness the insights provided by each of Preciado's subjects.  As an adaptation, Orlando, My Political Biography is both daring and worthy; it's a slippery work, one that effectively plays Woolf's novel at its own game.  This ambitious film is one of the most original debut features in recent years, and a late, joyous appearance from author and filmmaker Virginie Despentes ensures it sticks the landing.

Darren Arnold